Recalling the fire that destroyed Notre-Dame cathedral this past spring, I want to re-visit the question of where the Catholic church might go from here (see my earlier post on 5/6), focusing in particular on its institutional corruption and prospects for internal renewal through the laity's awakening and active intervention.
In my view, the best general-press critique of the current mess is Jim Carroll's recent Atlantic Monthly article. I sympathize with Jim's call for lay Catholics to adopt a stance of "internal resistance" to a clerical caste incapable of self-reform. Yet when he calls on the laity to "take back the church" and radically renew it by inventing new egalitarian structures and servant-leadership roles (e.g., eucharistic celebrants who are married, female, and of different sexual orientations), I don't think he goes far enough in thinking through what that change process requires. Let me outline an activist alternative.
Concerned, committed laity sympathetic to Carroll's outlook should network, build relationships, and then organize an independent lay Catholic association that adopts the method of nonviolent direct action with the aim of forcing the issue of radical renewal through a sustained, strategic withdrawal of consent. In keeping with the ecclesiology of Vatican II, the group might be called All People of God (APG); crucially, APG would prefigure in its constitution and activities the inclusive, egalitarian church to come. (Think of it as a "charter church," if you will, one that offers a proof of concept that there is another, more faith-filled way of being the people of God--while still being recognizably Catholic!). As the church mobilized for radical renewal, APG would orchestrate civil acts of "ecclesial disobedience" beginning perhaps with non-participation in the sacraments and moving quickly to non-payment of tithes and public postings of a 21st-century version of 95 Theses on Catholic church doors in every diocese. As the "Campaign for Vatican III" unfolded, more edgy and creative forms of ecclesial disobedience would be deployed.
Yes, this proposal runs the danger of polarization, ridicule from outsiders, and further demographic decline in church membership and lay involvement. But that is already the church's present and future, at least in the advanced-industrial world. Theologically, such a movement may be charged by some of suffering from millenarian hubris. Such are the risks, and hence every APG action would need to be grounded in humility and love as well as audacious hope and righteous anger. Both the gospel (starting with Luke 19:45-46) and the best traditions of nonviolence offer inspiration and models.
On this topic, I also find illuminating the work of Catholic scholar (and friend) Joe Holland, author of Roman Catholic Clericalism (Pacem in Terris Press, 2018), who provides a penetrating historical-structural analysis of the present crisis and outlines a similarly inspiring alternative that would liberate the church from its outdated organizational structure.
In briefest sum, Joe shows how the current mess dates back 1,700 years to the formation of the "western clerical institutional system." Joe emphasizes that what many church critics call "clericalism" is in fact an entrenched system imposed from above and not simply a "psychological or institutional tendency" within the church. Historically, that system "developed in three stages: (1) the Constantinian construction of the counter-evangelical hierarchical-clerical class; (2) the high medieval papacy's cruel and forced monastic-inspired imposition of clerical celibacy on Western presbyters (priests) and bishops; and (3) the Council of Trent's mandating of monastic-like clerical seminaries." None of these organizational forms are required by Catholic doctrine, Holland insists. And until we get another global ecumenical council (aka Vatican III) guided by prophetic leadership from the global South and Eastern Catholics, then we can expect to see the church's decline in the West continue.
Joe doesn't say much about how a radical renewal through a convening of Vatican III might come to pass, other than identifying who the key players might be and offering prayerful expressions of hope for the Spirit to blow mightily. Amen to the latter, by all means, but this Pelagianic Catholic wants an activist core to light a hundred little holy fires in the near future in faithful preparation for the Spirit blowing wildly across the land.
And then, come that kairotic moment, may we be renewed in the blessed bonfire that ensues. May a more authentic people of God arise from out of the ashes, whether or not a third global ecumenical council occurs or not.
Such is my prayer-cum-proposal.
"Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement." - Pope Francis, Laudato si'
Perhaps an opening exercise in embodied reflection on the sorry state of the U.S. farm belt might lend more weight to the discussion below of deep adaptation versus deep transformation in response to the climate crisis. I invite you, then, to feel with me the Heartland hurting as we imagine the big hurt put on it, beginning with the nasty bruises from soybean tariffs (prompting a $15B salve from Emerald City). Now, let's absorb the body blow and struggle with the loss of breath from record flooding, with Nebraska and large swathes of other grain-belt states under water and thousands of farmers throwing in the towel on planting. OK, let's catch our breath and brace ourselves before taking several gut-punches: debt-induced suicides, spiking opioid ODs, closing hospitals (the new term is "healthcare desert").
We're doubled over but not down. We stand our ground, as resilient and uncomplaining mid-westerners do, determined not to fall into denial and despair.
Now we turn inward and attend to the stress-induced fatigue and anxiety that's built up through decades of disinvestment and brain drain and growing unease over the
approaching demographic cliff (a huge number of Boomer farmers will retire soon, and so far the replacement numbers are dismal). Who will farm the fields, husband the animals, tend to the beehives, plant the trees? Agri-Bots?
Gazing now in time-lapse fashion at landscape changes from 1950 to the present, we feel how parched we're becoming as we watch the soils washing away and the vast watershed's infrastructure aging and failing more frequently (too little help with that from Emerald City). We notice as well the growing signs of Ogallala Aquifer tap-out (when, not if, the million-plus water pumps run dry in large numbers after decades of massive over-drafting, then it's truly game over for industrial agri-biz; this is arguably the biggest elephant in the regional room, followed by the decaying dikes, levees, dams, bridges, etc.). OK, enough is enough, let's take a drink of water from the well...on second thought, let's not after noticing the county has condemned it.
We're wickedly sore all over, weary, worried, and thirsty--but still breathing.
As we recover, we might reflect on the fact that U.S. grain-reserve programs for food security quietly went away two decades ago. We recall how priorities shifted. Since 9/11 the U.S. government has spent almost $6 trillion fighting an endless "war on terror" across the globe, with counter-terror operations in 80 countries. (We're told this "investment" in national security has kept grain exports safely flowing without interruption to foreign buyers.) And we recall further how, during this time, the U.S. military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons in greenhouse gases even as it continued to study the national-security implications of climate change while ignoring a major, breakthrough effort in strategic planning by its own people that addresses the challenges in a humane, holistic way.
Going forward, recovery (or restoration) may be the most accurate descriptor of our shared states-in-the-making, and not just descriptive of post-industrial-ag states. And here our exercise ends. My hope is that it may help you, as it has helped me, to take the full measure of what's at stake in the recent debate over deep adaptation versus deep transformation in response to the climate crisis. In what follows I summarize the debate for those new to it.
Last July, UK-based sustainability leadership expert Jem Bendell raised eyebrows with the online release of a paper that takes the latest climate science as confirmation of "inevitable near-term social collapse" due to (already) runaway climate change. Coming soon are widespread food shortages resulting from what a recent UN report on disaster risk refers to as "multiple breadbasket failure," which researchers say will be caused primarily by more record-setting extreme weather events. In addition, Jem soberly notes the cascading effects of other climate-related, stress-to-the-breaking-point phenomena impacting social systems in both the global North and global South (though poor nations in the latter will feel the pain first, experience it more intensely, and endure it longer). In particular, he worries most about massive release of greenhouse gases--methane especially--from sooner-than-expected Arctic meltdown; in this scenario, the positive feedback loop grows in intensity and renders climate change unmanageable for any future generation. On this Cassandriac view, then, it's night-night for predatory capitalism within a few decades; the predator now is prey for an angry beast it cannot tame. Another recent report on accelerating destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, now under the "stewardship" of Brazil's right-wing populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, lends credence to Jem's harsh climate realism.
Acceptance of Jem's very inconvenient truth claim, and a courageous grappling with the despair it evokes, need not result in resignation and political passivity, or so he argues. Rather, through the dark night of acceptance-despair (and it is at heart a spiritual journey, he holds), one can emerge with transformed personal vision and new-found strength to face the daunting survival challenges ahead and join with others to think through and enact a "deep adaptation agenda" of resilience, relinquishment, and restoration for living compassionately and creatively in renewed local communities--come what may. In short, Jem embraces a "radical hope" for love in the ruins (I wonder, has he read Percy's prophetic novel?).
Note as well that Jem's ethical-political agenda includes a radical proposal for collective action aimed at achieving (partial, painfully inadequate) climate mitigation. Why bother, if society is toast? Because we love our children and thus must strive with all our being to achieve the minimal yet truly vital goal of avoiding an even worse fate--human extinction--which is now a real possibility in his view.
Among serious theological voices grappling with the existential-risk issues Jem addresses, Jack Miles comes foremost to mind. Indeed, now is a good time to return to his seminal essay titled "Global Requiem: The Apocalyptic Moment in Religion, Science, and Art" (2000).
Meanwhile, the deep-adaptation stance articulated by Jem has resonated widely and generated much discussion online among environmentalists, sustainability professionals, academic researchers, and public intellectuals engaged with the climate crisis. His thinking is influential among Extinction Rebellion activists, and hundreds of people are active on the recently established Deep Adaptation Forum.
The many in deep denial aside, Jem's most thoughtful critics include UK cultural historian Jeremy Lent, who argues instead for radical commitment to "deep transformation" and a hoped-for emergence of Ecological Civilization. In both his historical-structural critique of late capitalism and his articulation of a constructive-postmodern alternative, Jeremy echoes Pope Francis, Thomas Berry, Sallie McFague, Catherine Keller, David Korten, Paul Hawken, Douglas Rushkoff and fellow travelers at Team Human, and Joe Holland, among others. His ethical-practical template for confronting Empire's penchant for self-inflicted crises and indifference to human suffering is the powerful hybrid of classical Hebrew prophecy (including the prophet Yeshua ben Nazareth) and modern social movements.
Jeremy's complaint against Jem's inevitable-near-term-social-collapse thesis is twofold. For one, Jeremy objects in principle to any definitive prognosis regarding our collective future, given what chaos and system theorists say about non-linear dynamics and historical contingency (and, I would add, what Nassim Taleb says about the impact of "black swan events" in history). He also points to continuing scientific uncertainty over climate tipping points, assumptions regarding parameters in climate modeling, and so on. For example, according to leading climatologist Michael Mann (Penn State), the real worry over a "methane bomb" slowly set off by melting permafrost should not be taken as confirmation of runaway climate change already unfolding. Rather, the models forecast big positive-feedback effects from carbon and methane release in the Arctic likely will not occur until later in the century, and further this predicted tipping-point process assumes BAU emissions over several decades--a scenario that seems unlikely as governments, businesses, and civil society finally move in a serious way to reduce hydrocarbon burning over the next 10-15 years.
Jeremy also fears many will miss the positive, liberating, and deeply ethical-spiritual implications of Jem's acceptance-despair stance and conclude instead that with midnight nearing on the Titanic and few lifeboats in sight, one may as well drink, dance, and sex(t) while one can. Or, declaring game over, the socio-economically privileged and geographically fortunate will maintain their denial and passively assent to forms of eco-apartheid that ironically, in the U.S., likely will come to resemble the old Mason-Dixon divide, according to research by the Climate Impact Lab.
In turn, Jem replies with a defense of the need for the climate-conscious to process fully and honestly the magnitude of what's in store even as they "fight like hell for the living" (Mother Jones) in and through a growing Extinction Rebellion and other climate-justice movements. Meanwhile, it's not too early to begin thinking seriously about how to live responsibly and creatively during the "long emergency" (Kunstler) ahead.
I introduce this debate to readers for several reasons. First, in an increasingly risky, runaway world the issues raised by Jem and Jeremy, and the insights they bring to bear on them, could not be more relevant and important to our shared future. Second, the logic, civility, philosophical acumen, and humanity on display in their exchange is a model of respectful, serious dialogue and evidence-based argumentation we all need to emulate going forward as the heat, atmospheric and emotional, continues to climb. And third, it's always good to step outside the states and listen to what others are saying--even if it's just two privileged white guys across the pond.
So, take the time soon to engage these thinkers, beginning with Jem's dark gem of a reflection on deep adaptation, then Jeremy's initial reply, and then Jem's response.