Opinion

He lived in an N.C. prison for eight months. This renegade Catholic priest to speak in Raleigh Sunday.

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on Leesville Road in northwest Raleigh.
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on Leesville Road in northwest Raleigh.

“I’ve spent my life chasing an idea – the idea of nonviolence.” With these words, John Dear begins “They Will Inherit the Earth: Peace & Nonviolence in a Time of Climate Change,” the latest of many books in which Dear has passionately promoted a cause that has garnered both strong support and equally strong condemnation.

Dear, a North Carolina native and Duke University graduate, has backed up his passion for peace by engaging in scores of non-violent acts of civil disobedience resulting in his arrest on some 80 occasions. No one could accuse him of being all talk and no action.

What adds particular interest to John Dear’s crusade for peace and environmental sensitivity is that he is a Catholic priest, a functionary of a church not noted in many quarters as enthusiastic for beating swords into plowshares. This Sunday at 4 p.m., Dear will speak in Raleigh at St. Francis of Assisi Church on Leesville Road about his ideas and will promote his new book.

Dear, 58, caused so much trouble for his superiors that in 2013 he was expelled from the Jesuit order to which he had belonged for 20 years. The precipitating cause, after years of an uneasy relationship with his superiors, was a violation of his vow of obedience. Dear refused to live in the Jesuit house to which he had been assigned. He felt he owed his obedience to a higher authority, his conscience.

Some Catholic church leaders might have wished that Dear would have gone away quietly and not continued to embarrass them by his incessant call to radical action. Dear himself wondered if any bishop would come to the rescue. Without a link to a church jurisdiction he would lose his right to function as a priest. Fortunately, Richard Garcia, the bishop of Monterey, Calif., “adopted” the ecclesiastical orphan, providing him with official cover for his perhaps quixotic endeavors.

Using traditional religious terminology, Dear might be called a prophet. Like his scriptural forebears and more recent role models such as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King, Jr., he feels compelled to cry out against what he sees as injustice and destructive behavior.

As was true of earlier prophets, both those of ancient Israel and their more contemporary counterparts, there is an uneasy relationship between the civil and ecclesiastical establishment and those passionate voices that, with their drumbeat for change, tend to destabilize social institutions and endanger the wealth and position of those in power.

Although currently traveling the world, Dear was born in Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina and in 1981 graduated magna cum laude from Duke. Dear also has been a guest for eight months of the North Carolina prison system. His arrest resulted from a December 1993 incident in which, together with several others, Dear took a hammer to a nuclear-capable bomber at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. Jail time was a sort of second novitiate for the young Jesuit priest.

What does Dear want? He wants disarmament; he wants nations and individuals to eliminate all destructive devices, be they hand guns or nuclear bombs. He wants to change what has been human behavior since cave men swung clubs at one another in anger.

He also calls for saving the natural environmental, “mother earth,” from destruction. No more climate change denial, no more polluting of our waterways with plastics and toxic waste, no more living as if we were entitled to consume resources dismissing concern for future generations.

Despite his church link with Monterey, Dear resides in New Mexico, where he rests and savors the beauties of nature to the extent that his world-wide speaking engagements allow. Although many Catholics – and others – reject Dear’s approach to problems, the Raleigh Diocese is to be commended for giving him an opportunity to speak.



William Powers, the author of "Tar Heel Catholics: A History of North Carolina Catholicism," lives in Chapel Hill.
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