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

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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.

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. His latest book is (more...)

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