Easter Sunday: Pope Francis & the Deep Meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection

Pope Francis
Readings for Easter Sunday: ACTS 10: 34A, 37-43; PS 118 1-2, 16-17, 22-23, ICOR 3L 1-4; JN 20: 1-9.

On this Easter Sunday, it’s appropriate to address the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Did he really rise from the dead? Or is that doctrine simply a remnant of childhood like belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus? And for those of us concerned with social justice, what can the Bible’s resurrection stories possibly mean?

This reflection tries to address those questions from the viewpoint of Pope Francis.

In response to the question about the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection, let’s look at what the Christian tradition itself tells us. It indicates that the resurrection accounts are not based on the physical resuscitation of a corpse. The experiences portrayed in tradition were more visionary and likely metaphorical.

As for the sociopolitical meaning of Jesus’ rising from the dead, Pope Francis addresses that question quite meaningfully in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Life is stronger than death, he reminds us. Despite appearances, vital forces will always triumph in the end. But we’ll get to that presently.

First however consider the nature of the resurrection traditions themselves. They were inspired by women and emerged from the bleakest depths of despair not unlike what many progressives might be feeling today as our fondest hopes appear further than ever from fulfillment – as a rogue U.S. empire wreaks havoc and its savage economy destroys the planet.

Think about it.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples returned to business as usual – fishing most prominently. It was their darkest hour. Yeshua, the one on whom they had pinned their hopes for the liberation of Israel from Roman domination was dead. Their world had ended.

But then unexpectedly, women among them reported an experience which effectively raised Jesus back to life (MT 28:1-10; MK 16: 1-8; LK 24:1-11). He was more intensely present, they said, than before his execution. Their tales changed everything.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, visionary and prophetic?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I COR 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that at best the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than as physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.)

In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark not only are there no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes un-proclaimed. This in turn indicates either that Mark didn’t know about such appearances or did not think them important enough to include!

Resurrection appearances make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. But always there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So, the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone present was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (JN 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (JN 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” Once again, it doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (MT 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (LK 24:30-32)?

Regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of Jesus’ dead body or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities resisting empire and serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

It’s here that Pope Francis helps us. In The Joy of the Gospel (JG), he relates the resurrection accounts, (whatever their factual basis) to our own despair – just as real and hopeless as that of Jesus’ bereft disciples. Francis writes to encourage us who might be worn down and hopeless in the face of a world:

  • Pervaded by consumerism and pleasure-seeking without conscience (JG 2)
  • Governed by merciless competition and social Darwinism (53)
  • Economically organized by failed “trickle-down” ideologies that idolize money (54, 55)
  • Controlled by murderers (53) and thieves (57, 189)
  • Torn apart by wars and violence (99)
  • Rooted in growing income inequality which is the root of all social ills (202), including destruction of the environment and its defenseless non-human animate life (215)

In the face of all that, here’s what Francis says:

“Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history . . . May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope! (276, 277)

Here the pope says that the power and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is not found in the past. Neither is there reference here to the resuscitation of the Lord’s body. Instead, the pope explains the resurrection in terms of a story that calls attention to the persistent power of Life itself:

* Of nature and spring after a long cold winter

* Of goodness in a world that seems governed by evil

* Of light where darkness reigns unabated

* Of justice where injustice is simply taken for granted

* Of beauty where ugliness is worshipped as its opposite

* Of hope over despair

* And of activists who refuse to stand on the sidelines

No need for despondency, the pope says. Despite appearances, Life and its irresistible forces are on our side! They will not – they cannot – be controlled even by imperial agents of death as powerful as the Rome that assassinated Jesus or the United States whose economic and military policies are butchering the planet.

Even post moderns, skeptics and agnostics can embrace a story with a message like that.

After all, it’s spring! Life goes on! Jesus has indeed risen!

The Salvation of Our Country and Church Comes from Iranians and Mexican Immigrants (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 4th Sunday in Lent: 2CHR 36:14-16, 19-24; PS 137:1-6; EPH 2:4-10; JN 3: 14-21

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Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us to look for salvation in unexpected places. In fact, it strongly suggests that the very ones our culture despises, and our church relegates to second class status have been chosen by God to save us. Specifically, I’m talking about Iranians relative to our country and Latin Americans in relation to the church.

Take Iranians first. (They are called “Persians” in today’s first reading.) There, one of them (King Cyrus) is identified in Chronicles as Judah’s “messiah” or anointed. The identification is given even though Cyrus was not a Jew, but an adherent of Zoroastrianism, a religion even more foreign to Judaism than Islam. Yet according to Chronicles, this Iranian king was God’s servant chosen to end Judah’s long exile in Babylon (modern day Iraq). That’s what I mean by salvation coming from an unexpected place.

Then in the second reading from Ephesians, Paul refers to Jesus of Nazareth in those same Cyrusian terms. Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed, Paul says – and an unlikely “Christ” at that. After all, the Nazarene was the son of an unwed teenage mother; an refugee-immigrant in Egypt at the beginning of his life; a working stiff rather than a priest or scholar; possessed by the devil (according to the religious establishment); a drunkard and whore-monger according to those same sources; an enemy of the temple and state; and a victim of torture and of capital punishment in the form reserved for terrorists. Nevertheless, just as Cyrus brought Judah back from their 70 year-long exile in Babylon, Paul says, Jesus, the executed criminal, brought all of us back from the metaphorical death caused by living according to the deathly standards of the world. In Paul’s eyes, those standards obscure the gifts of God by convincing us that we have to earn life rather than accepting everything as God’s gift. Or as Paul puts it: “salvation is not the result of works,” but of God’s graciousness.

That graciousness (John the evangelist reminds us in today’s Gospel reading) is unending; it covers all the bases, has no exceptions and lasts forever. It turns each of us into Christs – into God’s only son (or daughter) – into saviors of the world. In other words, each one of us is the unlikeliest Christ of all.

O.K. each of today’s readings tell us to look for salvation in unexpected places – even within ourselves. But what are we post-moderns to understand by “salvation” itself? Think about it. The answer should be clear both in terms of country and church. In both spheres our condition can only be described as absolutely desperate and in need of deliverance.

Politically, we’re currently like lemmings rushing headlong towards the final precipice. Under the aegis of the organization Noam Chomsky calls “the most dangerous in the history of the world,” our Republican “leaders” are in denial about the greatest peril the human race has ever faced. Here I’m referring to climate chaos that threatens to deprive our grandchildren and even us and our children of the most basic necessities of life.

Besides that, our rulers insist on developing nuclear arsenals whose destructive power boggles the mind. And they seem extremely anxious to unleash them. The U.S. commander in chief has gone so far as to wonder aloud, “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” If we’re not looking for salvation from all of that, we must be asleep entirely.

And as for faith . . . My own Christian community, the Catholic Church, it is in dire need of salvation too. It is crumbling before our eyes.

My parish in Berea, Kentucky is a case in point. There we’ve had a series of restorationist pastors hell-bent on reinstating the pre-Vatican II order I grew up in during the 1940s and ’50s.
Clericalism is their watchword and guiding vision. Outside the sanctuary, they wear birettas and cassocks. While celebrating Mass they seem rule-bound, uncreative, unthoughtful, and totally oblivious not only to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but to Pope Francis’ more recent summons to radical change as described in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), and in his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS).

As a result of such backwardness, church numbers are dwindling drastically. Parishioners I’ve seen at Mass every Sunday over my 46 years at St. Clare’s have gone missing. Alternatively, and like my own children, they have joined the ranks of the second largest denomination in the country – Former Catholics. Loyal progressives in my parish are at their wits’ end wondering how to cope with leadership tone-deaf to their desperate voices.

My own response has been to recognize what theologian and church historian, Figueroa Deck has identified as the “sleeping giant” of Latino Catholicism. That has me attending our parish’s Hispanic Mass at 11:00, rather than the increasingly reactionary and Euro-centric Anglo Mass at 9:00. I “go to the eleven o’clock” not only to escape the deadly retrogression of 9:00 a.m. antiquarianism, but in subconscious recognition, I think, of the fact that our Hispanic parishioners represent the cutting, salvific edge of the Catholic Church.

For decades now, the Latin American Church has embodied Catholicism’s most vital element.That’s personified in Pope Francis himself, our first Latin American pontiff, who I’m told is rejected by our current parish leadership – the same way Washington rejects Latin American immigrants.

Francis, of course, comes from Argentina. He’s followed the lead of Latin American theologians of liberation with his adoption of Jesus’ own “preferential option for the poor.” That entails recognition that the poor (including, most prominently, our immigrant population) know more about the world than our rich leaders – or even than us in more comfortable classes.

I mean, immigrants possess a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” while the rest of us see only one side of what’s occurring before our eyes. On the one hand, the daily observation of the undocumented (as our motel cleaners, nannies, gardeners, construction workers, and fellow parishioners) tells them what it means to be a white American. On the other, they know intimately the experience of exclusion by those same whites.

Immigrants know how the economy works for whites, and how it excludes browns and blacks. They know that rich capitalists and their money enjoy absolute freedom to cross borders, regardless of the negative impacts such mobility might (and does!) have on Global South economies. At least subconsciously, migrant workers recognize the simultaneous contradiction of their being excluded from such mobility, despite the fact that labor is an even more important part of the economic equation than capital. So even though the law (created by the rich) forbids them, immigrants vote with their feet to claim the rights the system unjustly denies them. Our “immigration problems” are the result.

The double consciousness of immigrants can be salvific for the church. If its expressions are heeded, they can save the church. As expressed by our Hispanic Pope Francis, the undocumented in our midst call us to a church where (in the words of The Joy of the Gospel) we cannot leave things as they presently are” (JG 25), but must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74).

Similarly, in the world of politics, Iranians (the descendants of Chronicles’ Cyrus the Great) inspired this time by Islam are calling us to changes in foreign policy. They implore us to just leave them (and their oil) alone. Ironically, their desire is that they be liberated from a kind of Babylonian captivity that places them under the jackboot of the United States and (still more ironically) Israel.

What I’m suggesting is that the descendants of Cyrus are still God’s instrument of our salvation. So in our present desperate context, are marginalized Catholic immigrants whose presence reminds us of Pope Francis’ wisdom and of the penetrating understanding of life that comes from refugees and the immigrants our government’s free trade policies create on the one hand, while refusing them sanctuary on the other.

Both bring us the new ways of relating to God, the new narratives and the new paradigms salvation requires.

Are You a “Had-It” Catholic? Are Retro-Priests Responsible?

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Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 1-14B-2:2B, 8-10; PS 131:1-3; I THES 2-7B-9, 13; MT 23: 11-12

Today’s readings should make today’s retro-priests very uncomfortable.  I’m referring to members of the Catholic Clergy who long for the “good old days” before Vatican II.

In any case, both the first selection from Malachi and the third from Matthew take clergy in general to task. They’re not teaching the right things, Malachi charges. They’re too concerned with clothes and titles, says Jesus.  Meanwhile today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to his community in Thessalonia suggests remedies for such failings. Paul even gestures towards a female clergy and worker priests. See if you agree.

Begin with the prophet, Malachi. He threatens the priests in his time with a curse. Probably writing about 500 years before Jesus, the prophet says “You have turned aside from the way and caused many to falter by your instructions . . . I have therefore made you contemptible and base before all the people.”

“Contemptible?” “Base?” Pretty strong words for priests, wouldn’t you say?

Then in today’s Gospel selection, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his own day for attachment to distinctive religious dress and for insisting on special titles like “father.”

Reading those passages, do retro-priests feel their faces turning red?

Relative to titles and dress, I’m alluding to the fact that we still call our priests “father,” despite Jesus’ clear words. And then there’s this reversion on the part of many priests to pre-Vatican II garb. Some are now wearing dress-like cassocks again (I saw one in the airport the other day), and even birettas. (Birettas are these odd square caps with three or four peaks or horns, sometimes topped with a black tuft.)

Before Vatican II, priests used to dress like that. Now in 2017, retro-priests are doing the same. It makes you wonder what they’ve been learning in the seminary over the last 50 years.

And as for Malachi’s words about faulty instruction . . . Why are we still listening to pre-Vatican II sermons?

Just a few days ago, I was talking to a fellow parishioner about exclusion of non-Catholics receiving communion while attending Catholic Mass. My friend was defending the exclusivity. And his reasons were like something from my childhood – more than 70 years ago! It was as if the ecumenical movement had never taken place – as though Jesus were somehow contained inside the communion wafer, as though he still believed that Catholics have an inside track in “getting into heaven,” – you know: up there.

The point here is not to criticize my fellow parishioner; it’s not at all his fault. The fault lies with (in Malachi’s words) the “instruction” given by our priests – and, I guess, to our priests in the seminary.  What they’re telling us from the pulpit doesn’t nearly extend to us the benefits of inter-denominational dialog, the insights of the last 150 years of biblical study, or even the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

What’s up with all of that?

Again, in Malachi’s words, it’s causing people to “falter,” to see the meaninglessness and irrelevance of it all, and to “turn aside” from everything churchy as contemptible and base – or at least irrelevant to their lives as thinking people. No wonder “had-it” Catholics constitute the second largest denomination in the United States.

Priests today are not even following the instruction of the pope who gives every evidence of being a had-it Catholic himself.

Remember four years ago, when Pope Francis published his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel? Throughout the document, you could almost feel Francis’ frustration with the situation I’ve been describing here. Recall what he said. It’s amazing in its content. But what’s even more amazing is the failure of priests and bishops to implement its directives.

Recall that Pope Francis called explicitly for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church. Things cannot be left as they presently are, he asserted, but must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74). Changes should entail new customs and ways of doing things, with new times, schedules, and language (27). In short, Catholics must find, a new path in our world (JG 1, 25).

What part of “new” are priests and bishops not getting?  Why, has NOTHING changed? NOTHING AT ALL!

Pope Francis got more particular. Homilies, he said, have to be better prepared and delivered (135-159). (The pope devoted a whole section of his exhortation to this topic.) Women need more prominence. He referred to them as generally more sensitive than men – more intuitive, and otherwise more skilled (103, 104). In recognition that other denominations share many points of faith and practice with Catholics, there needs to be more outreach towards those communities (246).

Even more importantly, Francis called the church to be more involved in political life, joining people of all faiths and none in the struggle for social justice. He specifically identified that struggle as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258). Here horizons must be widened, the pope urged, beyond simple concern for the “defense of unborn life” (213) to “each and every human right” including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192). Catholics must completely reject war as incapable of combatting violence which is caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59). Wars are caused by devotion to unfettered markets with their “trickle-down” ideologies which are homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).

That emphasis on social justice shows why today’s retro-priests and bishops are not merely quaint and irrelevant, but positively harmful – even deserving of that curse Malachi threatened. I say that because they’ve ignored Francis’ desperate calls for social justice – not to mention his warnings about climate change in his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’. I might even go so far as to say that neglectful priests and bishops are responsible for the election of Donald Trump and Republicans in general, whom (because of their position on climate change)Noam Chomsky has called the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.

After all, so many Catholic voters, possibly even a majority, chose Trump who in contradiction to the pope’s exhortation:

  • Denies human-caused climate change
  • Espouses trickle-down economics
  • Opposes living wages
  • Restricts access to health care
  • Loves the military
  • Threatens to annihilate an entire nation of 25 million people

What to do about all of this?

Here is where Paul provides direction. He suggests that priests are out-of-touch.

They need to get a job. Paul brags about how he worked day and night (as a tent-maker) so he wouldn’t represent a financial burden on his people. Can you imagine priests working at McDonalds and leading the campaign for $15 dollars an hour wages — and bringing that struggle into their sermons?

Like Pope Francis with his words about women’s unique gifts, Paul’s words even suggest a female clergy. He does that by comparing his dedication to his community in terms of “a nursing mother’s care for her children.”

Worker priests? Women priests? Now those changes truly represent a new path. That “New” no one could misunderstand. No more “father.” No raised eyebrows at clergy wearing dresses and fancy hats.

“Got-it” Catholics might replace the “Had-its.”

It’d work for me!  How about you?

And how might we get from here to there? (Discussion follows.)

To Make a Nation Great Again: Trump’s Cabinet vs. Jesus’ (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23

Well, it’s happened. Donald Trump is our new president. We saw the know-nothing real estate magnate, casino king, reality show star, and unrepentant assailant of women sworn in last Friday at noon. Many of us are still in shock.

As everyone knows, the new president’s announced program is to make America great again. His cabinet picks evidence his strategy. It’s to run the country “like a business.”

Look at them all. Every one sitting around the table where decisions will be made about our lives and the fate of the planet comes from the 1%. They are all billionaires, multi-millionaires, generals and Christian fundamentalists. (One of them boasts that killing is fun.) Ironically, they claim to prefer biblical science to what our world’s finest minds (including Pope Francis) tell us about the errors of “the American Way.” Evidently, for Mr. Trump the best and the brightest are the richest, most venal, and violent.

The new president’s cabinet picks reveal his underlying philosophy. It’s austerity for the poor (and the planet) complemented by welfare for the rich. They want to defund public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA. They oppose raising the minimum wage. Meanwhile, they want to drastically lower tax rates for themselves. It’s the tired old “trickle-down” theory revisited with a vengeance, even though it’s been completely discredited. In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis called the ideology homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at its root (59).

Yet many Christians (even Catholics) voted for Trump and see him as somehow the instrument of God!

Providentially, all of that is extremely relevant to the readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (and first in the Extraordinary Time of the Donald).  That’s because today’s Gospel reading in effect records Jesus’ selection of his own “cabinet picks” as he begins his campaign to make his country great again. Today’s reading from Matthew records his selection of the first of his twelve apostles – the successors to the great patriarchs of Israel.

It’s no stretch to say that Jesus’ program was to “Make Israel Great Again.” In his day, the country could have no such pretensions. (In fact, it probably never was great.) It was a poor backwater – an obscure province of the Roman Empire.

Yet its prophets remembered days of prosperity, when God seemed to be on Israel’s side.

Those were all times of liberation from oppression specifically by the rich and powerful – the ancient analogs of Mr. Trump’s cabinet. The first glorious period followed after Yahweh freed slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. Another came in the 6th century, when the Persian monarch, Cyrus the Great, released captives from the long Babylonian Captivity of 70 years.

A third time of liberation and joy is the one Isaiah references in today’s first reading. The ecstasy he describes came in the 8th century BCE, when leaders from Israel’s Northern Kingdom returned home after a captivity (under Assyria) of some 20 years. Then, he says, bitterness and sorrow were turned to joy – specifically, for orphans, widows and resident aliens.

The bitterness began, Isaiah notes, in the regions where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali lived.  That was in the region that by Jesus’ time became known as Capernaum – the city in the Galilee that Jesus adopted as his own (MT 9:1). Significantly, in today’s Gospel excerpt, Matthew has Jesus beginning his public career in the very place where Israel had first become oppressed – in that region of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Matthew’s point is hard to miss: Jesus has come to end all (especially foreign) forms of oppression with his announcement of the advent of God’s Kingdom. It would be a reality mirroring what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Prostitutes and beggars, n’er do wells, the halt and the lame would enter that kingdom, Jesus promised, before the rich and professionally holy (MT 21:31).

The Kingdom would represent a system that favored workers rather than rich landlords, bankers, and oligarchs. “Blessed are you poor,” Jesus would say, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (LK 6:20). “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (LK 6:24). “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (MT 19: 16-24). All of these statements betray an approach that might be described as “percolate-up” rather than “trickle-down.”

So does Jesus’ selection of the New Israel’s 12 patriarchs. From the viewpoint of the world, it’s almost comic. In today’s reading, Jesus chooses ignorant, illiterate working men as successors to Old Testament saints like Joseph and Benjamin, Zebulun, Naphtali, and their eight revered brothers. In their place, Jesus installs smelly fishermen Peter, James, and John. Later he’ll add a reformed tax collector, and at least one insurgent against the Roman occupiers. Women who had no political power at all would be central in his band of followers.

All of that gives us a God’s eye view of how to make Israel, America – the world – great. Apparently, according to the divine order, it’s not by making the rich richer. To repeat: unlike Donald Trump, Jesus doesn’t begin by enlisting the services of his country’s great landlords, its generals, or its bankers. (As a poor peasant himself, the carpenter from Nazareth didn’t even have that option!) Instead, he starts from below, where all truly effective social change must start.

All such reflections give direction to those attempting to follow the Master from Capernaum today. Our readings call us to join Pope Francis and other critical thinkers in rejecting all forms of trickle-down theory. As the pope reminds us, history and common sense lead to that rejection.

Today’s Gospel supplies a more profound reason for doing so: trickle-down is not the way of the Jesus’ God whose universe is not run like a business, but is a gift system. The world itself is an expression of God’s generosity to all of us. And something is drastically wrong when workers and their children go hungry, when people are forced into prostitution to make ends meet, and when beggars cannot find work.

Something is also profoundly out-of-order when would-be followers of Jesus support politicians convinced that the way to make a country great is by giving even more wealth to the obscenely rich, while forcing austerity measures on the poor.

The November Elections, Pope Francis, and the Catholic Vote

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On September 6th, the Washington Post published a report called “White Catholics Struggle to Get on Board the Trump Train.” The article’s assumption was that obviously Caucasian Catholics are expected to vote Republican. However, the report noted, some are having second thoughts in the light of the Trump candidacy – presumably because of his waffling on the issue of abortion.

Unexplainably, the Post article completely ignored the overall progressive thrust of Pope Francis’ teaching and the un-Republican influence it might be having on Catholic voters. Instead, it bolstered its “of course” assumption about Catholics voting Republican by puzzling over the fact that four years ago Catholics who attended Mass at least once a month favored Mitt Romney by 38 points. This year, Donald Trump’s lead among such Catholics has shrunk to 17 points..

True, the WaPo article did suggest that Pope Francis might have something to do with the trends it described. After all, Francis had explicitly intimated that Mr. Trump was unchristian for intending to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Followers of Jesus, Francis said, build bridges, not walls. In response Trump dismissed the pope as “very political.”

However, the Post completely ignored the issues of climate change, a world economy based on arms manufacture, capital punishment, and world-wide income disparities – Pope Francis’ signature issues that he himself highlighted in his speech last year to the U.S. Congress.

The Post carried on as if that speech and the pope’s landmark encyclical on climate change had never occurred. It was as though the Church were still mired in the reactionary era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when Catholics seemed obsessed with one issue alone: abortion without connecting it (as Francis has done) to problems of poverty, war, environmental destruction, and an overwhelmingly punitive “justice” system.

So how should Catholics vote who are tuned into Pope Francis’ more comprehensive moral concerns? According to the pope’s eco-encyclical, his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, and his address to the U.S. Congress, Catholics should vote:

  • 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 wealthy and in favor of increased redistributive taxes on their incomes.
  • Against those whose answers to global terrorism are 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.

In the run-up to the elections, these are the issues Catholics should quiz Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump about – as well as candidates for other public offices.

Second Thoughts on Pope Francis & Family Issues

Confessional

Last week I posted a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek comment on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The document represented the pope’s reflections on the synod of bishops that met over the last two years to reformulate the Church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality and the family.

Obviously, all of those elements find themselves mired in profound crisis in the contemporary world. Given that fact, and despite the pope’s efforts to save the day in the face of the intransigence of the world’s episcopacy, the document proved to be highly disappointing.

Notwithstanding what I wrote last week, Amoris Laetitia left me wishing that the Church could bring itself to speak in plain language accessible to us all.

But no:  the encyclical was full of platitudes and written in opaque Vaticanese. It demonstrated the out-of-touchness of Church leadership, and its inability and/or unwillingness to help today’s women and men face up to their real problems in the light of a rich faith tradition perfectly capable of providing such assistance.

No wonder so many young people – so many couples – have long since dismissed the Church as irrelevant and counterproductive in terms of making sense of their lives in a globalized world!

[News flash to the Vatican: Outside of your little realm, the major problem facing couples today is not whether divorced people should be allowed to receive Holy Communion! It’s not even whether or not artificial birth control is morally acceptable. (Catholics have long since resolved that “problem;” they use contraceptives in the same percentage as everyone else.)]

Instead, think of the real problems we all face around the fraught matters Amoris Laetitia pretends to address, but which it only dances around, and in the end avoids. These problems were recently outlined by psychologist, Dr. Harriet Fraad, in an interview with economist, Richard Wolff. They include the following:

  • The introduction of the internet and easy birth control has changed the nature of dating and sexual relationships.
    • Increasingly, couples meet online instead of through family and friends.
    • It is no longer socially unacceptable for them to have sex before marriage.
    • In fact, hardly anyone waits till marriage.
    • This makes marriage less necessary and attractive as a means of achieving access to sex.
  • Divorce statistics (as well as witnessing the unhappiness of their parents) similarly discourage marriage. Fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce; 60% of second marriages and 70% of third marriages finish the same way. And after divorce women are usually left holding the bag in terms of child support.
  • Families are stressed when economic circumstances make it necessary for both parents to get jobs. That typically means women end up working a double shift – in the workplace and in the home.
  • The prospect of overwork eventual divorce leads more and more women to choose to remain single. Many become Sugar Babies to Sugar Daddies – older, well-established men who pay off their Baby’s overwhelming college loans or credit card debt.
  • Men, on the other hand, find themselves deprived of their traditional, male-defining role as bread-winners. Anger results – deflected towards guns, the military, sports addictions, evangelical religions (where women are subordinate) and pornography.
  • Children suffer the consequences of it all. They are left alone after school, when most of their problems emerge – not the least of which is obesity.
  • With all those realities in mind, marriage is increasingly viewed as an unnecessary hassle — a luxury good – accessible and desirable only for the well-to-do.
  • So young people end up postponing or rejecting it altogether.
  • They opt instead for serial cohabitations without commitment.
  • Or they become “Herbivore” men, “Dried Fish” women, or MGTOWS.

It’s not that Pope Francis doesn’t bring up many of these problems. Nor is he incapable of addressing them in ways helpful to struggling families. In fact, his three major publications (including Amoris Laetitia) provide clear principles for doing so.

  • His eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, teaches clearly that all things are connected. The role of religion (which means “binding force”) is to make connections apparent.
  • Similarly that encyclical along with his Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” identifies capitalism-as-we-know-it as the connecting structural cause of contemporary problems. Its demands pits employers against their employees and men against women; it underpays them or deprives them of work; it requires them to work longer hours, drives both parents into double shifts, destroys families in the process, and then claims to represent “family values.”
  • And finally, in Amoris Laetitia itself the pope identifies conscience (informed by thoughtful consideration of the Christian tradition) as the most reliable guide humans have at their disposal.

Simply highlighting those principles and calling Catholics to adult dialog about their application to dating, marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, and child-rearing would have done much more than the largely impenetrable document the Vatican actually produced.

It’s Time to Take Action on Climate Chaos!

Bishops & Climate Change

It has been almost a month now since Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States – almost a month since he issued his clarion call to save the planet, eliminate capital punishment, open borders to refugees, and divest from the arms industry.

And what has happened since?

Nothing at all – as far as one can see from the vantage point of the parish pew, the diocesan newspaper, or statements from the national hierarchy.

None of this is surprising. It’s the same non-response achieved by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” That document called literally for changing everything in the Catholic Church. But nothing at all has changed as a result.

That wasn’t, of course, the response to Pope Francis’ visit here in September. Then there was great enthusiasm for traveling to Philadelphia to demonstrate Catholic faith by showing up to see the Holy Father in person.

Even my small parish in Berea, Kentucky sent a whole busload of people Pictures were taken. Descriptions of crowd density and of the hardships of traveling so far and lodging under primitive conditions were detailed. Everyone agreed however that it was all worth it.

Apparently, taking the pope seriously about climate change, capital punishment, the refugee crisis and disarmament is not worth it.

After all, the climate change process advances unabated. Despite the pope’s warnings, Catholics presumably continue watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh, and supporting climate change deniers in the political arena.

All of this is true, even though the pope warned in Laudato Si’:

“Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” (14)

The words are prophetic. Indifference, nonchalance, and resignation seem to be the order of the day. As for “blind confidence in technical solutions,” one has to acknowledge the problem before that can enter the picture.

The pope is no stranger to denial. It was the order of the day in the case of Argentina’s Dirty War. Many Argentinians pretended they didn’t know about the kidnappings and disappearances of their neighbors, about the army’s rampant torture program or its thousands of extra-judicial assassinations.  As Argentinians said at the time, “We did not know, what no one could deny.”

That seems to be the very definition of Catholic majority consciousness relative to the issues this pope has centralized. It’s the very definition of Know-nothing-ism and religious irrelevance.

Instead, Catholics and others need to embrace the sense of urgency the pope has articulated so well. We need:

  • Frank discussion of diocesan divestment from oil and coal companies even in a coal state like Kentucky.
  • The conversion of parish plants away from dirty energy consumers and into solar energy generators.
  • The opening of our churches to the refugees created by the endless wars our tax dollars fund unquestioningly.
  • Church-sanctioned resistance to taxes that finance those wars, arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and continued extra-judicial assassinations by U.S. drones.
  • Protests against the scandal of the executions that have missed scarcely a beat since the pope’s clear pronouncement against capital punishment.
  • Consistent connection of Sunday liturgies and readings to the overriding issue of climate chaos.

Pope Francis is right: it’s time for action and prophetic witness in the face of the greatest set of problems our planet has ever faced.