A Spirituality for Climate Change Activists: Al Fritsch’s New Book, “Resonance”

Al Fritsch

Climate chaos activists and theoreticians are missing the boat, because they overlook their problem’s profound spiritual dimensions. The omission is not trivial, because at heart climate change represents the most pressing spiritual problem of both our age and, no doubt, in the history of the world.

This is the basic thesis of Resonance: Promoting Harmony when Confronting Climate Change.  by Rev. Al Fritsch.

The book points out that indeed many are familiar with the scientific dimensions of climate change. The science has been trumpeted for years by virtually the entire community of climate scholars. Similarly, the problem’s moral dimensions should also be evident in a world where giant corporations make billions by producing planet-destroying fossil fuels while at the same time sponsoring well-funded campaigns to deny that human-caused climate chaos even exists.

Nevertheless, the spiritual dimensions of climate chaos remain soft-pedaled – including by climate change activists. This is true even within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the brave efforts of its own Pope Francis who tried to underline connections between faith and climate change more than two years ago, with the publication of his monumental eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

In making such observations, Father Fritsch knows what he’s talking about. Like Pope Francis, he is a scientist himself. Dr. Fritsch owns a PhD in chemistry. He is also a life-long activist – a colleague of Ralph Nader in the founding of Washington D.C.’s Center for Science in the Public Interest. Later on, in his native Kentucky, Fritsch extended his D.C. work to the foundation and direction of Appalachian Science in the Public Interest and most recently of Earth Healing, Inc. (For years, my family and I have benefitted from the daily, down-to-earth practical recommendations Fr. Fritsch’s organizations have publicized in their Appalachia Simple Lifestyle Calendar.)

Most importantly, however, Al Fritsch is a Jesuit priest. His Ignatian spirituality has made him a mystic whose faith in the underlying unity of all creation finds evidence on every page of his inspiring book. Mystics, of course, are convinced that (1) there is a spark of the divine in every human being, (2) that spark can be realized – i.e. made real by expression in daily action, (3) it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) every great religious tradition embodies means and methods to facilitate such activation (e.g. meditation, prayer, spiritual reading, repetition of mantras, training the sense, slowing down, one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and practicing community with similarly committed others), and (5) once the realization of the divine spark within dawns, the realizer finds that same presence in every other human being and in all of creation.

Even the most casual reader of Fr. Fritsch’s masterpiece cannot avoid perceiving his internalization of such convictions. In fact, they are all embodied in the very title of his book.

“Resonance” is about the harmony present in everything that exists – a synchronizing force caused by a shared divine presence in micro-organisms, plants, animals, human beings, the earth itself, our galaxy and the entire universe.

In the first part of his book, Fr. Fritsch displays his grasp of the scientific and social dimensions of creation’s universal harmony. There resonance is evident, he argues, not only at the physical levels of time and space, but below them in creation’s chemical and biological dimensions.

Socially, such harmony is also found in human communication, and in artistic creations, especially in music. Resonance then reaches its human apex in love, compassion, and in the type of human collaboration that enhances civilization. Entire chapters are devoted to each of these topics making Resonance a kind of reference work that can be delved into where interest and personal or research needs demand.

However, it is the second part of Resonance that makes its most important contribution. For it specifically addresses the spiritual dimension whose omission, Fritsch argues, deprives climate change activists of the enthusiasm necessary for continued hope-filled struggle in the face of odds stacked against their efforts by the previously noted forces of corporate greed and deception.

“Enthusiasm,” Fr. Fritsch reminds us, is related to his essentially mystical outlook. Etymologically, the word means “in God.” It refers to the energy derived from awareness that (as St. Paul puts it) we all live and move and have our being in a profoundly divine reality (ACTS 17:28). Without that awareness enhanced by daily prayer and meditation and frequent communal celebration of life (e.g. in the Eucharist) weariness, despair, and burnout easily replace the energetic action necessary for the long-haul struggle required of those aspiring to effectively defend the earth.

Accordingly, chapters in the second half of Resonance address specifically mystical resonance as exemplified in Jesus the Christ. For many, Christ’s Spirit, Fr. Fritsch emphasizes, promises to awaken that earlier-referenced consciousness of the divinity resident at the heart of everything that exists. That consciousness in turn awakens compassion for the suffering earth and its vulnerable and wounded inhabitants.

But Fr. Fritsch’s call to spiritual awakening is by no means confined to those sharing the Christian faith or any faith at all. With homage to Karl Rahner, the author recognizes “Anonymous Christians” who can recognize the harmony of creation exposed in Part One of Resonance. Despite their lack of formal faith, they too need the spiritual centering of meditation practice that need not be Christ-centered or religious. To repeat: without such grounding, they run the risk of despair and burnout.

Resonance is a welcome complement to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. Activists, teachers, and discussion groups will find it an inspiration and source of practical energy fueling their efforts to save the planet for their grandchildren and generations to come.

“American History X,” Charlottesville, and President Trump: Mystical Consciousness Alone Can Save Us

American History X

Keeping in mind the controversy around the recent white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville VA, you might want to watch American History X again. Some probably remember it well, even though it premiered back in 1998 – nearly 20 years ago.

However, the events in Charlottesville make the film more contextually relevant than ever. That’s because it depicts the inner dynamics of white racist gangs, and the psychology of its leaders and members. Even more importantly, it expresses exquisitely the fascist mind-set of current “leaders” in Washington including most prominently the president of the United States. Concurrently, it calls us all to a mystical conversion as our only salvation from encroaching Nazism.

Recall the narrative. Like the Charlottesville backstory, the plot of American History X centers around white supremacists afraid that they’re losing control of their neighborhood and what they consider their country.

Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton) is the main character. Derek’s a Nazi white supremacist whose father, a Los Angeles firefighter, is killed in the line of duty. Crucially for Derek, his father’s killers were members of an African-American drug gang.

That personal tragedy leads Derek even further into the depths of white supremacy. As the leader of a skinhead gang, he uses his extraordinary leadership charisma and street eloquence to become its legendary head and inspiration.

Here’s a speech that Derek gives to gang members before they trash a grocery store owned by an Asian immigrant. See if it sounds familiar:

Again, does any of that sound familiar? I think we’ve heard highly similar (though slightly less crude) remarks from our current president. As if we needed it, they remind us of the simplistic world-vision such sentiments presume. It’s the immigrants, not the capitalist economy itself, who are responsible for the job=loss and for Americans’ falling standard of living. Like President Trump, Derek apparently doesn’t understand how globalist trade policies and endless U.S. wars and bombings have destroyed the livelihoods and homes of the immigrants in question. And, of course, there’s no trace of comprehending the shared spiritual identity that precedes nations and borders that are by comparison quite artificial.

The one chiefly influenced by Derek’s example is his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes his brother and so becomes roped into the white gang’s culture.

After Derek shoots one and brutally stomps to death another of two black men attempting to steal his truck, he’s sent to prison for three years. There interactions with other white supremacists whose actions reveal their hypocrisy, along with an unlikely friendship with an African-American inmate open Derek’s eyes. He emerges transformed from his prison experience. He rejects his skinhead ideology, formally leaves his gang, and makes it his mission in life to open the eyes of his younger brother who is already well along the path Derek’s own footsteps have marked out.

In other words, the former skinhead moves from a stage of nationalism to something like world (or at least multi-racial) awareness that makes him more understanding and accepting of those he previously despised.

Importantly, the film’s conclusion even hints at the dawning of a salvific mystical consciousness on the part of Danny who narrates the film. Just before the credits roll he quotes an unnamed author saying, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Those words show a realization on Danny’s part that only a mystical recollection of a Higher Self (“the better angels of our nature”) will, despite contrary passions, prevent the severance of kinship’s bonds that precede the historical events that divide us one from another. To me, that echoes the dawning of a kind of cosmic-consciousness.

That consciousness alone can save us now (that and perhaps jailing those “leaders” I mentioned, so that they might share Derek Vineyard’s conversion experience). Put otherwise, we neglect our deep bonds of human spirituality at our own peril.

As the great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, said about our future  so many years ago, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”

Unfortunately, Rahner’s nothingness now constitutes humanity’s very horizon.

So watch American History X again. And see if it makes you think about where we are heading.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Reflections on a Reunion of Former Priests

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The Catholic Church is a sinking ship. So are its orders of priests and nuns. The “reforms” presaged by the election of Pope Francis are like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They’re busy work for those whom history has rendered superfluous.

Similarly, for all the good will behind them, efforts at reforming orders, congregations and societies of priests and religious are doomed from the start. Typically they endorse the hierarchy’s negligence by failing to address the substantive causes of the crises that afflict the sinking church and its semi-submerged sub-organizations.

These are the conclusions I drew after attending a joyous reunion of priests and former priests (and their wives) belonging to the Society of St. Columban. That’s the Irish-founded missionary group I joined in 1954 (when I entered the minor seminary at the age of 14) and which I left in 1976. I had been ordained in 1966 (ordination photo above — taken by my classmate, Tom Shaugnessy).

The reunion took place in Bristol, Rhode Island over a three-day period just last week (July 21st-23rd). It was great getting together with friends, colleagues, teachers, former priests and their spouses. It was wonderful to see so many of my one-time missionary friends with their beautiful wives from Ireland as well as Japan, Korea, Chile and other “fields afar” (as the title of one missionary magazine used to put it). Several men’s spouses were former nuns. I can only imagine the wonderful love stories each of those couples might tell.

As with all reunions, there were the usual reminiscences from years long past. We made wisecracks about how all of us have aged, and observations about how quickly time has flown. There was catching up to do about retirement, children, grandchildren, illnesses, deaths of former colleagues, and plans for our declining years – and always in a light-hearted spirit. We even went for a cruise around the Newport Harbor. Great fun!

On the final day, things turned more serious. The newly-elected Regional Director of the Columbans spoke to us about the Society of St. Columban today. After introducing himself, this comparative youngster of 51 years informed his appreciative audience of recent efforts to update the Society in the face of zero vocations over the last number of years in Ireland, the U.S., England, and Australia. The situation is aggravated by the advancing ages of the 400 or so priests who remain in the Society – so many of them over the age of 75.

In response, we were told, the Columbans have made efforts at recruiting seminarians from the “mission” territories. As a result, Columban ordinations have taken place in the Pacific Rim – in Korea, Fiji, the Philippines, and also in Latin America. The Society’s directorate has changed accordingly. With its headquarters now located in Hong Kong instead of Ireland, the current directing council is a rainbow blend of Irish, Latin American, and Philippine “superiors.” Additionally lay associates, both men and women have become more prominent in the Columban scheme of things.

Besides such developments, there have been efforts at dialog with Muslims, especially in Pakistan and the Philippines. Social justice for the poor and ecological concerns have become central themes of documents recently authored by Society “chapters” or long-range planning sessions. Above all continued emphasis on brotherly love and legendary Columban hospitality continue as hallmarks of this group about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding as the “Maynooth Mission to China” in 1918. (“Maynooth” was the name of the Irish National Seminary back then.) With China now open, Columbans are currently making efforts to reintroduce themselves into that continent-sized country thus reclaiming the Society’s original focus.

All of that seemed encouraging. Such updating demonstrates the good will, generosity and continued vitality of men and women still intent on doing good in the world and serving the God their faith envisions. Columbans remain for me the most inspiring community of its kind I’ve ever known.

However questions surfaced for me about the reforms just mentioned. And unfortunately there was little time to raise – much less probe – them during the discussion period that followed the new Regional Director’s fine presentation. For instance:

• What does it mean that Pacific Rim Catholics are more open to the priesthood and mission than Europeans and North Americans? Is faith stronger in the former colonies? Are candidates European wannabes? Or has a pre-Vatican II brand of Christianity been introduced in the Pacific Rim that avoids the crises of the celibate priesthood that emerged following that historic Council whose 50th anniversary we’re currently celebrating?
• Does the incorporation of women and laymen as associates give them equal voice and vote in Society matters? Will there soon be a woman Superior General governing the Society of St. Columban?
• What is the point of Columban-Muslim dialog? Is it conversion of the Muslim dialog partners? Is it enrichment of all conversation participants? Is it collaboration and cooperation? If so, what is the shared project?
• For that matter, what’s the point of missionary work itself? After all, Vatican II recognized the value in God’s eyes of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other faiths. Are missionaries still trying to convert faithful people whose culture seems so distant from a Christianity so long and fatally associated with empire and exploitation?
• What specifically are Columbans doing about ecology and care for the planet? It’s easy for organizations nowadays to claim “green” commitment, but where does the rubber meet the road? Are Columbans encouraging vegetarianism as spiritual and ecological discipline? Are they cutting back on air-conditioning? Are they mandating that their cars be hybrids or have targeted miles-per-gallon ranges? Are they mounting campaigns focused on global warming and the introduction of genetically modified seeds in Latin America and Asia?

Those are some key questions that necessarily remained un-discussed at our Columban reunion. But I did get the opportunity to pose one whose answer led me to draw the conclusions I shared at the beginning – about the Columbans, organizations like them, and the Catholic Church itself being sinking ships. I asked:

• The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, has observed that the Holy Eucharist is constitutive of the church. Without Mass, he said, there simply can be no church. Therefore it is positively sinful on the part of church leadership to deprive Catholics of Eucharist because of an artificial priest shortage caused by blind commitment to mandatory celibacy and an all-male clergy. What are the Columbans doing to lobby for fundamental change in the church to make the Eucharist more available to the communities Columbans serve?

Understandably, the Regional Director gave the expected answer – the only one possible, I think. “Of course,” he said, “where 2 or 3 Columbans get together those questions are always discussed. However, we’re such a small and relatively insignificant organization, we have so little clout. So, no, we haven’t discussed petitions or protests on those matters.”

In other words, the sin of mandatory celibacy for priests, the sin of an all-male clergy will continue until the Vatican repents. But even Francis I is not about to don sack cloth and ashes in that regard.

That institutional obstinacy was underlined for me in the Mass that concluded our magnificent reunion. Two male priests stood before a congregation of “priests forever” – the latter adopting subservient positions in the pews instead of concelebrating. No woman had any role in the Mass. Additionally, the recently mandated pre-Vatican II Latinisms reminded me that the church is actually regressing:

• “Consubstantial” (instead of “one in being”)
• “And with thy spirit” (rather than “also with you”)
• “Shed for you and for many” (not “all”)
• “It is right and just” (instead of “fitting”)
• “Come under my roof” (rather than “receive you”)

The Latinisms are not trivial. They represent subtle messages that the signature liturgical reform of Vatican II is over. In the context of the Columban reunion, they demonstrated how hemmed in good people are by decisions from above.

Talk about rearranging deck chairs . . . . I could almost hear the water bursting through the Ship’s gaping hull.

When a Prophet Visits: Matthew Fox Sweeps through Berea

Matthew Fox came through my hometown, Berea Kentucky, a few weeks ago. I’m still energized by the experience. It showed me what happens when a prophet drops by.

Matt’s the ex-Dominican theologian and spiritual teacher who was hounded out of his Order by Pope Ratzinger (aka Benedict XVI). His offense? The same as that of the 101 theologians and pastoral leaders that Fox has posted on his “Wailing Wall of Silenced, Expelled, or Banished Theologians and Pastoral Leaders under Ratzinger.” (The names appear at the end of Fox’s book The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved.)  The names include giants like Karl Rahner, Ivone Gebara, Edward Schillebeeckx, and my former teacher in Rome, the great moral theologian Bernard Haring.

As Matt’s more than 30 books show, he, like the others, was censured by Pope Benedict XVI for being too good a theologian and spiritual guide; he tried too hard to implement the directives of the Second Vatican Council; he was too successful in connecting the Christian Tradition to our post-modern world. All of that our ex-Hitler Youth Pope finds extremely threatening to his overriding pre-Vatican II values: order and Group Think directed from above.

My wife, Peggy, had instigated Matthew Fox’s visit to Berea College. As Director of Women’s Studies she had invited him for her “Peanut Butter and Gender” series of luncheons. Over the years, the twice-monthly event has paralleled the College’s convocation program of speakers and artists.  At “PB&G,” Matt gave a dynamite talk on men’s spirituality. Later on in the afternoon, he spoke to the entire student body wowing everyone in the process.

Of course, I attended both events. But I was even more privileged because Fox visited our home the night before. Over Manhattans he, Peggy and I compared notes, were surprised by friendships we share with others, and spoke of the dismal state the Catholic Church has reached under the “leadership” of the last two and a half popes (Ratzinger, John Paul II, and the last half of Paul VI’s term in office). Additionally, I had an hour or so in the car with Matt as I drove him to the Lexington Blue Grass Airport the morning after his visit. We spoke of Ratzinger’s 1968 “conversion” to the Catholic rendition of religious fundamentalism, and of Matt’s work with the witch, Starhawk (whom he identified with evident admiration as a “genuine liberation theologian”).

However, the highlight of the entire experience was a potluck supper at our home. Peggy had organized that too – for members of our Berea parish, St. Clare’s. The idea was for the Peace and Justice Committee and other progressives to meet with Fox and discuss how to respond to the drabness and irrelevancy of what passes for worship and Christian community in our church.

After an extraordinary potluck supper, about twenty-five of us sat in a big circle in our living room. Everyone joined in with comments, complaints, questions and concerns. Matt took it all in, responded when appropriate, and then shared his insights.

His most telling observation was to reverse the common perception shared by most in the room. That’s the opinion that progressive Vatican II Catholics have somehow been marginalized by the church. Fox turned that notion on its head. He held instead that we are the ones who are orthodox, while the last two (anti-Vatican II) popes are actually schismatic. They and their Vatican Curia are the outsiders, while we are the faithful ones adhering to the official teaching of the Catholic Church which remains the doctrine of Vatican II.

What to do about it all? Fox was helpful there as well. In fact, at the end of The Pope’s War, he lists “Twenty-Five Concrete Steps to Take Christianity into the Future.”  All of those steps were thought- provoking. However in terms of Fox’s “schism” observation, here’s the one that hit hardest for me:

“Instead of ‘Vatican III’ or a so-called lay synod that is gerrymandered by clerical curialists, let the various lay leadership groups hold national and then international gatherings among themselves – synods that are worthy of the name. Let them give marching orders to church officials instead of the other way around. Let the church officials listen to the laity for a change. Let the laity choose the theologians they wish to be their periti at such synods (if any).”

Along those lines, next month the “Call to Action” Conference will be meeting in Cincinnati. A group from our parish will be attending that convocation of progressive Catholics. Matthew Fox will speak there. I’ll be in attendance with my friends.

Expect a report in this blog.