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


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’.

Oscar Romero’s Message: Another God Is Possible; Another God Is Necessary!


(This is the second in a three-part series on our parish’s upcoming celebration of the beatification of San Oscar Romero which will take place on May 23rd. The event will be observed in Berea’s St. Clare’s parish on June 3rd, when our new bishop, John Stowe, will join us.)

In the previous installment of this mini-series inspired by the upcoming beatification of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, I offered a thumb-nail sketch of the great archbishop’s life. Romero’s witness has been inspiring for many, including Lexington’s new bishop, John Stowe. (As I said, think of the thoughts that must have coursed through the bishop’s mind as he celebrated Mass recently at the very altar where Oscar Romero was shot. We look forward to his sharing those thoughts on June 3rd when he joins our local church to celebrate Monsignor Romero’s beatification.)

In fact, Monsignor Romero’s story should be encouraging to each of us because of its life-changing implications. It connects perfectly with the message of Pope Francis in his “Joy of .the Gospel.” Both tell us that political and spiritual transformation is not only possible; it is necessary to save our world.

First of all consider the example of Oscar Romero. His change was profound both politically and religiously. In both dimensions, he became a radical, like Jesus of Nazareth.

Remember, Monsignor Romero started out conservative in every sense of the word. To a large extent, that’s why he was appointed archbishop in 1977. Romero was considered safe. He was patriotic. He unquestioningly supported his country’s military. He looked on the widespread rebellion of the poor in El Salvador with great suspicion. He considered the would-be revolutionaries communist subversives.

And yet, the archbishop had this close friend on the opposite side of the political fence. He helped Romero grow. That friend was Rutilio Grande. Grande was a Jesuit who took very seriously his vow of poverty.

So the priest moved out of the parish rectory and lived with the poor in their barrio slums. He knew first-hand their struggles, their family break-downs, their unemployment, hunger, low wages, and harassment by local police. Those became his issues, his context for interpreting the Gospel of Jesus.

Even more, Grande knew the Salvadoran military’s strategy for defeating the country’s impoverished insurgents. It was simply this: kill everyone who might possibly be sympathetic to rebel forces. That meant targeting most of the country’s non-elite. It meant butchering many of their parish priests. For Rutilio Grande, the slogan of the White Hand death squad represented an everyday reality and threat: “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

Eventually, of course, the White Hand killed Father Grande himself. It was his martyrdom that pushed Oscar Romero over the edge and radicalized him. He utterly abandoned his conservatism. He would later say, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” (The “they” Archbishop Romero referred to was his own government, its military, and their backers in the United States.)

So Archbishop Romero started listening to the poor. He attended their “biblical circles,” where peasants shared their thoughts about Sunday gospel readings. Once after listening to simple farmers sharing thoughts about “The Parable of the Sower,” the archbishop stood up without comment and walked away from the group. The local priest followed him and asked anxiously, “What’s the matter, Monsignor, did something offend you?”

“No,” the archbishop responded, “quite the opposite. It’s just that I think I’ve heard the Gospel of Jesus today for the first time.”

This is where Romero’s Other Gospel, Other Jesus, Other God comes in. The archbishop discovered that when poor people read the Bible, they see things that remain invisible for people like us who tend to be white, comfortable, patriarchal, and supportive of empire.

Jesus was none of those things, the archbishop realized. He was brown or black, poor, a victim of empire, and counter-culturally open to the viewpoints and experience of women. Those factors constituted the Master’s standpoint. They deeply influenced how he saw the world.

More specifically, Jesus stood on the same ground as El Salvador’s poor (and by extension, the poor of today’s Global South). He was conceived out of wedlock by a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He was a working man with calloused hands and sweat-stained clothes. His friends, people said, were drunkards and prostitutes. Rabbis expelled Jesus from the synagogue, and thought he was diabolically possessed. Even his family thought he was insane. Jesus became a vagrant without visible means of support. He lived under an oppressive empire. Imperial authorities saw him as an insurgent and terrorist. He ended up a victim of torture and of capital punishment.

All those characteristics, Archbishop Romero realized, described Another Jesus that to him was far more compelling, inspiring and faithful to the gospels than the abstract and other-worldly Jesus elaborated in the theological texts that guided his doctoral studies in Rome.

So San Romero concluded that the poor knew Jesus more deeply and authentically than he ever could. (They had what scholars called a “hermeneutical privilege.”)

The Jesus of the Poor revealed that Other God who alone could save El Salvador. Fidelity to that same Jesus can save our world from the path to destruction we’ve embarked upon. (And this is where Pope Francis’ continuity with Romero’s vision comes in.)

Francis too has chosen to prioritize the experience and understanding of the world that belong to its poor. In doing so, he challenges our very idea of God. He evokes the Other God who alone can save us from the abyss.. For the pope, God is not neutral, but stands with the poor in their struggles against oppression. What does it mean, he asks implicitly, that God chose the poor, oppressed and despised as the primary site of his Self-revelation?

It means the poor of the world are God’s Chosen People. That answer has led Pope Francis to be the voice of the voiceless. And he does so even at risk of being called a communist. In this, he’s like Dom Helder Camara the late and sainted bishop of Recife in Brazil. Dom Helder said, “When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a communist.”

Pope Francis does more than ask Dom Helder’s question. In his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (J.G.), he answers it. I’ll tell you what causes poverty, he says. It’s the reigning economic system that is homicidal (J.G. 53), and unjust at its roots (59). It’s allegiance to the “trickle down” ideology of the rich – a theory that has never worked (53). The world really belongs to the poor, the pope insists (57). The rich who refuse to return to the impoverished what is rightfully theirs are robbers and thieves (57). The rights of the poor take precedence over those of private property (189).

The pope’s choice to be the voice of the voiceless extends to the environment as well to impoverished humans. Watch for his encyclical on climate change to be published sometime next month. There he’ll surely give voice to the planet’s animals, plants, mountains, forests, rivers, and oceans. In the face of climate change, he warns us, “God always forgives. Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.” So what’s the proper response to the challenges of Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, and (we hope) Bishop Stowe? As I see it, proper response entails:

  • Leaving behind the safety of contemporary Christianity’s conservative ways.
  • Committing to a path of parish renewal and personal faith development intent on acquainting ourselves with the biblical God of the poor.
  • Viewing the world and its conflicts from below – from the viewpoint of the Other Jesus embraced by Monsignor Romero – from that of unwed mothers like Miryam of Nazareth, of immigrants, the mentally unbalanced, sex workers, the homeless, insurgents, terrorists and those being water-boarded and executed by the state.
  • Recognizing that with 1.2 billion members world-wide, a Catholic Church attuned to the spirits of Oscar Romero and Pope Francis has unlimited potential for changing the world.
  • Embracing that change as our collective vocation.
  • Abandoning pet convictions that national allegiance, military action, and trickle-down theories will solve our world’s problems.
  • Embracing the Other Jesus of the poor
  • His Other God
  • And the Other World that Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, and Jesus proclaim as the very essence of God’s Kingdom.

Bishop Stowe Is Sending Us a Message by Attending Oscar Romero Celebration


(This is the first in a three-part series on our parish’s upcoming celebration of the beatification of San Oscar Romero which will take place on May 23rd. The event will be observed in St. Clare’s parish on June 3rd, when our new bishop, John Stowe, will join us.)

As one of the first acts of his new Episcopate, Bishop John Stowe will be visiting my parish, St. Clare’s in Berea, Kentucky, to celebrate the beatification of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was gunned down at the altar on March 24, 1980.

In accepting the invitation to join the celebration, then bishop-elect Stowe wrote:

“Oscar Romero is a great inspiration in my life and I am thrilled to know of a community that wishes to celebrate his witness.”  

Bishop Stowe’s words and his decision to attend the celebration are freighted with meaning for Catholics of the Lexington Diocese. They speak volumes about Bishop Stowe’s overriding commitment to social justice. The bishop’s words call our attention not only to the person of Oscar Romero, but to the theology that informed his life, and to our vocation as followers of Jesus the Christ.

In today’s posting, think about Oscar Romero himself. (Subsequent blogs – next Wednesday and the following Monday – will focus on liberation theology as it relates to Romero, and then on practical responses to the archbishop’s beatification).

Oscar Romero was born in 1917. Like our present pope, Francis, he was a Jesuit. Monsignor Romero entered the seminary at the age of 13 and was ordained at 26. He studied in Rome, and received his doctorate in theology there from the Gregorian University. In 1977, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador.

The monsignor was a bookish man – very traditional, both politically and religiously speaking. He was a conservative in every sense of the word.

However, a turning point came for Oscar Romero less than a month after his consecration as San Salvador’s 4th archbishop. A close friend of his – another Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande – was assassinated by one of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads. Rutilio Grande was an advocate of the poor, an opponent of government oppression of the peasants and workers, and an advocate of radical theology. He saw Jesus as a prophet – the Son of God bringing good news to the poor.

Romero’s own words reveal the impact of Grande’s death. He said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'” The “they” Archbishop Romero referred to was his own government, its military, and their backers in the United States.

In other words, the penny had dropped for the archbishop. He realized that his country and all of Central America was at war. It was what Noam Chomsky called “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It pitted the United States of America and its right wing allies in Central America against the Catholic Church.

But as Romero said in a speech at the Universite Catholicque in Louvain, Belgium, just before his martyrdom, the U.S. war wasn’t against the entire Catholic Church.  Or as the archbishop himself put it,

“. . . (I)t is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”

In other words, the archbishop had put his finger on the problem: the Catholic Church was divided between the traditionalists who supported the rich, unfettered capitalism, and U.S. Empire on the one hand, and those who took the part of the poor on the other. Grande’s death convinced the archbishop that he had been on the wrong side. So he switched over and took the part of the poor. In doing so, he in effect signed his own death warrant.

Nevertheless, he began speaking out fearlessly each Sunday against his country’s government, its military, and their supporters in the United States. He railed against El Salvador’s endemic poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. He specifically criticized the United States for the military aid it gave to El Salvador’s repressive military government.

President Carter ignored the archbishop’s pleas to stop arming El Salvador’s military and death squads. And when he entered office, President Reagan doubled down on his predecessor’s policy.

Still, Archbishop Romero continued to follow faithfully Rutilio Grande’s path. His weekly radio programs became a sensation throughout El Salvador. He named names and listed the disappeared, tortured, murdered and much more. The archbishop’s broadcasts became the main source of trustworthy news for his oppressed people.

As a result, death threats from the White Hand death squad came to him every day. But such intimidation didn’t work on Oscar Romero.

Finally, though, on March 24, 1980, the chickens came home to roost. In a crime intellectually authored by Roberto D’aubuisson, a darling of U.S. Central American policy, the archbishop was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist in a convent in San Salvador.

The country was plunged into mourning. 250,000 people attended Archbishop Romero’s funeral. However, only one of the country’s bishops attended his funeral. The others considered him too radical and politicized. They stayed home.

The Salvadoran army however did not. Death squad sharpshooters terrorized the funeral, dropping smoke bombs and killing anywhere from 30 to 50 people while wounding many others. It was a world-class scandal.

But it was by no means the end of the war against the Catholic Church. The White Hand death squad continued to follow its slogan, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

Less than a month after Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom, four U.S. women religious (all from Cleveland, Ohio) were brutally raped and murdered: Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan. Then in 1989, a team of six Jesuit liberation theologians at the Central American University along with their housekeep and her 15 year old daughter were slaughtered by Salvadoran soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.

By the war’s end, scores of priests were killed along with lay ministers of the word, teachers, social workers, and union organizers. In 1980 alone, more than 11,000 such activists fell victim to the death squads. By the war’s end, more than 70,000 Salvadorans had been killed by their own government. Imagine the impact of such numbers in a small country of just over 6 million people.

The Long Reach of Pope Francis: how he (and Oscar Romero) touched our diocese & our parish

Pope francis oscar romero


I once was once skeptical about Pope Francis.

When he was elected, my first thought was “Can anything good come out of an Electoral College of Cardinals packed so tightly with clones of the reactionaries, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? Bergoglio must be one of those carbon copies.”

But I was wrong.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio turned into Pope Francis. Far from a triplet brother of his immediate predecessors, the new pope has proven to be truly Latin American. That’s so even to the point of embodying the ideals of liberation theology, or reflection on the gospel from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed. He has espoused the latter’s “preferential option for the poor,” its trenchant critique of corporate globalization, and its openness to marginalized people of all kinds. What a surprise!

My second thought was, “But he’s already old. His papacy will be short. He won’t be able to accomplish much of enduring impact.

Imagine then my further astonishment, when a mere three years into his papacy, Pope Francis’ touched  in remarkable ways our  tiny and remote diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. Even stranger to say, his reach extended to our little Kentucky parish of St. Clare’s in Berea. It made me wonder if this is happening all over Francis’ world. I hope so.

First of all, consider what’s happened in Lexington.

Our previous bishop was a canon lawyer – an appointee of John Paul II. Bishop Ronald Gainer distinguished himself by urging pro-choice politicians to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. He has since shown other overriding concerns by forbidding Catholic School girls in his new diocese from engaging in sports (such as wrestling, rugby, and football) “…that involve substantial and potentially immodest physical contact.” You get the idea.

After waiting for more than a year, Bishop Gainer’s replacement was at last named. It was John Stowe, a Conventual Franciscan. Father Stowe showed his colors in his introductory press conference. There was not a word about abortion, contraception, or gay marriage, much less about girls’ wrestling.

Instead he introduced himself as “a Franciscan educated by the Jesuits and appointed by a Jesuit Pope who has taken the name Francis.” “I love Pope Francis,” Father Stowe said, “and I will do whatever he asks.”

Turns out, the new appointee is not only a disciple of the pope; he is also a sharp critic of reactionary politics – especially as they affect immigrants. (Fr. Stowe, BTW, speaks fluent Spanish.)

For instance, in 2006, when Fr. Stowe addressed the Mayor’s Congress on Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, he criticized the U.S. Congress saying, “We shudder to imagine what the inscription on the Statue of Liberty might read if it had been erected by the current U.S. Congress.” Promising words indeed.

And that brings me to our parish, the long reach of Pope Francis and its connection with our new bishop.

You see, during this past Lent, for the second year in a row, a small group of us met each week to study the pope’s “The Joy of the Gospel” – the Apostolic Exhortation published in November 2013. In one of our concluding sessions, we were searching for something practical to connect the pope’s words with our community of St. Clare’s.

The calendar told us that the beatification of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero was coming up on the 23rd of May. (Beatification is a major step towards canonization or sainthood in the Catholic Church.)

Romero, you recall, was the martyred archbishop of San Salvador. In 1980, he was gunned down at the altar by an assassin connected with El Salvador’s Arena party which was supported by the Reagan administration. Because Romero is considered the patron saint of liberation theology (which the pope saw as too influenced by Marxism), John Paul refused to even call the archbishop a martyr. Instead, he referred to him merely as “a zealous pastor.”

Pope Francis has changed all of that. Romero, he says, was not only a martyr, but has advanced him on the way to official recognition as a saint of the entire Roman Catholic Church.

Well, our little discussion group thought: Why not have our parish celebrate Romero’s beatification?

“Great idea” we all agreed; “We could hire a Mariachi band, invite the Hispanic community and folks from Berea College’s Union Church” (a Church of Christ with whom people from St. Clare’s traveled to El Salvador on more than one occasion). “And then we could follow it all with a big fiesta.”

Someone else added, “And why not invite the new bishop?”

“Wouldn’t hurt to ask,” was the consensus — although we thought his acceptance would be unlikely, since by the end of May, he’d barely have been installed as bishop.

Well, guess what? He agreed to come. That sends a strong signal about his priorities.

So did his letter written immediately after receiving our invitation:

Thank you for your kind words of welcome and the excellent suggestion of celebrating the beatification of Archbishop Romero. I am so happy to know that St Clare’s and Union Church are in a relationship with the Church in El Salvador. That is exactly what Pope Francis is encouraging us to do!

I just returned last night from visiting our Central American Friars; we celebrated the 35th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom although we were in Costa Rica. This past February 1st, I was able to celebrate mass in the hospital where Romero was killed—all this to say, Oscar Romero is a great inspiration in my life and I am thrilled to know of a community that wishes to celebrate his witness.

I will look for possible dates to celebrate the beatification with your community.

Your message is most welcomed!!

Bishop-elect Stowe’s acceptance of our invitation means that everyone in our parish and from parishes nearby will surely attend an event that might otherwise have been overlooked. Everyone will want to meet the new bishop.

He is sure to have some inspiring words to say about Romero, and hopefully about liberation theology, and U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s. This will indeed be a teachable moment.

Do you see what I mean about Francis’ long reach? This is already far better than I anticipated three years ago.

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

Italy Pope Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Mullarkey, Pope Francis pretty much stinks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A global Catholic climate movement further entails:

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

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

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

Twenty Lessons I learned from My 40 Years of Teaching Social Justice

mike teaching

During the fall semester of 2014, I taught a Religion course at Berea College called “Poverty and Social Justice.” The course was personally significant because it rounded off 40 years of teaching at Berea, where my first class convened in 1974 – exactly 40 years ago. I remember how I came to Berea, fresh from leaving the priesthood, on fire from Vatican II, sensing the increasing importance of liberation theology (see below) and (naively) ready to change the world.

In this 2014 semester, nineteen students (mostly juniors and seniors) participated in REL 126. The students were engaged, committed, funny, energetic and smart. They, along with our readings, films and required community activism, taught me a great deal.  And that, by the way, has been my consistent experience since 1974 – I’m the principal beneficiary of the courses I’ve taught. (I’m thankful every day for the path Life has so gently led me follow.)

In any case, I’d like to share twenty of my own specific learnings here. Of course, none of my students would be able to draw these conclusions. After all, they were exposed to the underlying historical events and to the resulting ideas for the first time during the course. However for me, as I’ve indicated, REL 126 represented a kind of capstone to forty years of teaching and nearly half a century of trying to understand the world from the viewpoint of its disenfranchised majority. Grasping that understanding, I’ve come to realize, is the only hope of salvation our world has.

But before sharing those conclusions, let me tell you a bit more about the course itself.  Like all of my courses over the years, its basic purpose was to stimulate critical thought about poverty, hunger and what the Christian tradition teaches about social justice. Our readings included Ron Sider’s Just Generosity, Cynthia Duncan’s Worlds Apart, and the Bread for the World 2014 Hunger Report. We also analyzed the (still relevant) 1973 Pastoral Letter by the U.S. Catholic bishops of Appalachia, “This Land Is Home to Me.”

In addition, all of us attended monthly meetings of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) and volunteered for their “Get out the Vote” actions. A KFTC activist spent two of our class periods leading us in a game of “Survive or Thrive,” a wonderfully instructive game she had invented to replicate the problems of international “free trade” agreements. The activist wasn’t our only class guest.  A grass roots entrepreneur from a clothing factory in Nicaragua and a Glenmary priest-activist campaigning against Appalachian mountaintop removal also graced our classroom.

Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and taking Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as our guiding image, the course had us attempting to re-vision U.S. history from the viewpoint of the poor and disenfranchised rather than “the official story” of presidents, generals, the rich and the famous.

So we made sure that our current events source reflected those usually neglected viewpoints. To that end, students watched and reported regularly on “Democracy Now.” We even spent some class time watching and discussing a number of interviews with street-level newsmakers by the show’s anchor, Amy Goodman. Additionally class participants researched and reported on issues highlighted on the program including climate change, police militarization, prison privatization, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, reparations to descendants of African slaves, the campaign for a living wage, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and Israel’s bombing of Palestinians in Gaza.

In line with our commitment to understanding the experience of the actually poor and disenfranchised, our approach to the Christian tradition in this religion course was that of liberation theology – understood as “reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of those working for the liberation of the poor and oppressed.” Our readings here were drawn from a series on the topic which I had authored and published on my blog site.

A screening of the film “Romero” along with some other shorter documentaries, put flesh on those intentionally brief to-the-point readings. The documentaries emphasized U.S. sponsorship of third world dictatorships under genocidal U.S. allies like Pinochet (Chile), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), the Duvaliers (Haiti) and Somozas (Nicaragua), Mobutu (Congo), and Diem (Vietnam).

Together our intentionally subversive approaches to history and faith were intended to expose students to the untold history of the United States, and to the untold story of Jesus of Nazareth.  From all of this, I drew the twenty conclusions I mentioned earlier. Remember, my students could never reach such conclusions. My hope is that someday (if they continue reading outside the dominant culture) they might:

  1. Historically speaking, the United States is the country Adolf Hitler and his backers imagined Germany would be had they triumphed in World War II – the absolute ruler of the capitalist world at the service of corporate interests. In short, the U.S. has become the fascist police state Adolf Hitler aspired to lead.
  2. As such the principal enemies of the United States are those Hitler imagined being the protégés of “Jewish Madness”—viz. the world’s poor and disenfranchised.
  3. These are (and have been since the end of World War II) the objects of what C.I.A. whistle-blower, John Stockwell, has termed the ”Third World War against the Poor” located throughout the developing world. It has claimed more than seven million victims.
  4. This war by the United States has made it the principal cause of the world’s problems in general and especially throughout the former colonial world, as well as in the Middle East, Ukraine, and in the revived threat of nuclear war, along with the disaster of climate change.
  5. Its war against the poor has made the United States a terrorist nation. Compared to its acts of state terrorism (embodied e.g. in its worldwide system of torture centers, it unprovoked war in Iraq, illegal drone executions, the unauthorized bombings in Syria, its preparations for nuclear war), the acts of ISIS and al-Qaeda are miniscule.
  6. Far from “the indispensable nation,” the United States is more aptly characterized (in the words of Martin Luther King) as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Without the U.S., the world would be far less violent.
  7. At home, “our” country increasingly tracks the path blazed by Nazi Germany. It has become a state where corporate executives and their government servants are excused by one set of laws, whereas U.S. citizens are punished by another. Following this regime, law-breakers go unpunished; those who report them are prosecuted.
  8. This type of law is increasingly enforced by a militarized police state in which law enforcement officers represent an occupying force in communities where those they are theoretically committed to “protect and defend” are treated as enemies, especially in African-American and Latino communities.
  9. As a result, new wave of “lynchings” has swept the United States at the hands of “law enforcement” officers who execute young black men without fear of punishment even if their murders are recorded on video from beginning to end.
  10. In addition, disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos have been imprisoned in for-profit gulags that rival in their brutality Nazi concentration camps.
  11. The point of the militarized police state and prison culture is to instill fear in citizens – to discourage them from constitutionally sanctioned free speech, protest and rebellion.
  12. As in Nazi Germany, the dysfunctions of “America’s” police state (including poverty, sub-standard housing and schools, drug addiction, and broken families) are blamed on the usual suspects: the poor themselves, especially non-white minorities. They are faulted as undeserving welfare dependents and rip-off artists. Systemic causes of poverty are routinely ignored.
  13. In reality, welfare and other “government programs” represent hidden subsidies to corporate employers such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds. These latter pay non-living wages to their workers and expect taxpayers to make up the difference through the programs just mentioned.
  14. Government programs such as food stamps could be drastically shrunk and limited to the disabled, children, and the elderly, if all employers were compelled to pay their workers a living wage adjusted for inflation on an annual basis. Currently, that wage must be at least $15.00 an hour.
  15. Moreover, since education quality and achievement are the most reliable predictors of students’ future poverty levels, the U.S. education system should be nationalized, teachers’ salaries should be dramatically increased, and all facilities K through 12 regardless of location should enjoy highly similar quality.
  16. All of this should be financed by declaring an end to the so-called War on Terror, withdrawing from foreign conflicts and reducing by two-thirds the U.S. military budget.
  17. Instead, the current system of corporate domination, state terrorism, war against the world’s poor, and lynching of minority men is kept in place by rigging the nation’s electoral system in favor of right wing extremists. They control the system through practices such as unlimited purchase of government (the Citizens United decision), voter suppression tactics (e.g. voter I.D. laws), redistricting, and rigged voting machines. They do not want everyone to vote.
  18. U.S. citizens are kept unaware of all this by a mainstream media and (increasingly) by a privatized system of education owned and operated by their corporate controllers.
  19. As a result, revolution has been rendered inconceivable.
  20. The only hope and prayer is for a huge general economic crash that will awaken a slumbering people.

The Siege of Gaza: A Palestinian Liberation Theology Perspective


Just this morning it was reported that the Israeli State bombed another U.N. designated refugee shelter in Gaza killing children sleeping beside their parents. The attack raised to 1300 the number of Palestinians killed by Israel since the siege of Gaza began. Most of those killed are civilians – at least 20% children. Meanwhile 53 Israelis have lost their lives – all but a handful were soldiers laying siege to Gazan homes and cities protected by their inhabitants.

The ongoing slaughter of Palestinians by the Israeli State makes crystal clear the identity of the real terrorists in Israel-Palestine. They are the State of Israel on the one hand and its unconditional supporter, the U.S. government on the other. Both in fact are terrorist states.

I’ll go even further and argue here that in the present phase of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, the Jews have little or no right to claim they are acting in self-defense. They are clearly the aggressors guilty of extreme war crimes.

This time I base that argument on helpful analytic distinctions concerning “violence” commonly made be liberation theologians in general and by Palestinian liberation theologians in particular. I interviewed the latter back in 2006 at the Sabeel Ecumenical Center for Liberation Theology in Jerusalem.

Like liberation theologians everywhere, those at the Sabeel Center attempt to analyze their context (and the Judeo-Christian tradition) from the viewpoint of those without public power or voice. Of course, in Palestine that viewpoint belongs to the Palestinians not the Jews.

According to Sabeel analysts, there are really four types of violence at work in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Three of them are employed by Israel’s leadership against the Palestinians. None of the three is justified. In fact, according to liberation theologians, only one level of violence can ever be excused – in very limited circumstances. And that violence happens to be the very type our media uniformly designates as “terroristic” – ironically, the crime of Palestinians defending themselves against criminal Jewish aggression.

Let me explain by reviewing each level of violence identified in liberation theology, connecting each to the conflict under discussion here:

1.Institutionalized Violence:This refers to the destructive social, political and economic “structures” that shape human activity. For instance, the maintenance of a global economic system that causes 35,000 children to die each day from absolutely preventable hunger is a form of institutionalized violence. It kills children, the sick and elderly as predictably as if victims were shot in the head – 35,000 times every day.

In Palestine, the wall snaking through the region is a violent structure. So is the Israeli Army (IDF). Meanwhile Palestinians have no army. So laws preventing Palestinians from arming themselves also represent violent structures depriving them of their right to self-defense. Even legal arrangements which have prevented Palestinian authorities from paying 40,000 workers (because of alleged connections with Hamas) represent structural violence. In Palestine the primary victims of structural violence by far are Palestinians, not Jews.

Structural violence kills Palestinian children every day.

2.The Violence of Self-Defense:Institutionalized violence inevitably gives rise to a response. In the case of Palestine, blowback first took the form of non-violent protests. In 1947 general strikes and demonstrations by Palestinians were so effective that they led the United Nations to suspend its “Partition Plan,” which had awarded 55% of Palestine to Jews, even though they represented only 30% of the area’s population. But when Jewish settlers responded with heavy-handed military measures, violent resistance on the part of Palestinians became more frequent. It eventually culminated in the Six Day War in 1967 and in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Later, Palestinian children threw rocks at soldiers illegally occupying their neighborhoods during the First and Second Intifadas in 1982 and 2000. Then in 2009 Palestinian insurgents began firing rudimentary homemade rockets into Israeli neighborhoods. (I will address suicide bombers below.)

Because the first (institutionalized) level of violence goes unidentified as such, this second level of violence typically appears unprovoked. It is therefore identified as “terrorism” pure and simple – an act of evil people who for some reason (e.g. self-interest, racism or sadism) enjoy killing the innocent. This is how Palestinian rocket attacks are portrayed in the U.S. mainstream media to justify Israel’s third level response.

In reality, Palestinians are defending themselves from structural violence and from the third level of violence – its reactionary form.

3.Reactionary Violence: Reactionary violence is the response of the defenders of violent structures to self-defensive, second level violence. This third level violence is routinely overwhelming and shocking in its disproportionality. It is what we are currently witnessing in Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian casualties dwarf Israeli deaths (currently 1300 to 53). The victims of third level response are overwhelmingly civilian – 20% of them children. Third level violence destroys houses, schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly, playgrounds and refugee shelters.

Regardless of such disproportionality and direct attacks on civilians, the media portray this third level of violence as justified and therefore not really “violence” in the negative sense. Such portrayal leads many to think that the resisters have merely gotten or are getting what they have asked for and deserve. After all, the police and military are merely upholding the law.

4.Terrorist Violence:This category is complicated – again by bias (on the part of governments, police, media and academia) favoring violent structures and their defense. Though more aptly applied to what has here been termed “reactionary violence,” the term “terrorism” is usually (and erroneously) applied indiscriminately to category two (above), the violence of self-defense. In the official or popular mind, it almost never finds application to categories one or three.

Such error is rendered nearly inevitable by official definitions of “terrorism” For instance, the F.B.I. defines terroristic violence as “The unlawful (emphasis added) use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

This definition is noteworthy for its emphasis on law (or legal structures). Terrorism, it says, is “unlawful” use of force and violence. That is, following this definition, the possibility of unjust legal structures is rendered completely invisible and ruled out of consideration.

Yet is it is clear that the enforcement of law itself (by the British in colonial America, the Nazis in the 1930s, the Afrikaners in South Africa, by State governments in the Jim Crow South, or by the State of Israel in Palestine) can intimidate or coerce entire “civilian populations or segments thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

In other words, state terrorism is not only possible, but has arguably been far more destructive than non-state terrorism. Chomsky and Herman recognized this in their classic The Real Terror Network. There they call state terrorism (such as that directed towards Palestinians by the State of Israel) “wholesale terrorism,” and responses to it (even like suicide bombers) as “retail” terror.

[That raises the question of Palestinian suicide bombers, who first appeared in 1995. For most, this is correctly identified as a quintessential act of terrorism. However distinctions made here suggest the following question: In terms of terrorism, what is the difference between suicide bombers and the Israeli response we are now witnessing in Gaza?

To begin with, the suicide bombing was not “original” violence but a response to first-level (structural) and third level (reactionary) violence. Moreover the response of the Israeli State on average takes ten to twenty times the number of Palestinian civilian lives as the original attack – just as indiscriminately as any suicide bombing.

Such figures describe state “terrorism” writ large. They illustrate Chomsky and Herman’s distinction between wholesale and retail terrorism.]

With all of this in mind, the distinctions offered by liberation theologians in Latin America and in Palestine lead the following conclusions:

• Since it is defending the structural violence of illegal occupation (in violation, for instance, of UN Resolution 242), Israel has no justifiable claim to self-defense.
• Its present offensive in Gaza does not even qualify as (unjustifiable) “reactionary violence.”
• Rather, it represents an act of wholesale terrorism in its indiscriminate attacks on civilians, homes, schools, playgrounds, power plants, and refugee centers.
• Meanwhile Palestinians have the right to self-defense. As Chris Hedges has recently pointed out, this is supported by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and by Article III of the Geneva Convention regarding the Protection of Civilians during Time of War.
• Nevertheless suicide bombing is an act of terrorism and cannot be morally justified.
• But Zionist response is no different in moral terms and far more destructive as an act of wholesale terrorism.
• In comparison to Israel’s structural, reactionary, and terroristic violence, Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel turns out to be more symbolic than destructive. Its nearly victimless effect is to keep the Jewish population aware of the ongoing injustice of illegal occupation, of the illegal separation wall, and the seven year siege of Gaza, the largest prison camp on the face of the earth.

My conclusion to all of this is the following: It is time for media coverage to abandon their pro-Israel coverage which is itself part of the structural violence destroying Palestinian lives. Even more, it is time for peace activists everywhere to find their voices on behalf of the voiceless.

Regardless of threats to our organizations and careers, we must all speak out clearly on behalf of Palestinians and condemn ethnic cleansing by the State of Israel.