I don’t know about you, but I’m loving what I’ve read of the new encyclical Pope Francis issued on June 18. Entitled “Laudato Si,” (Praise Be), On the Care of Our Common Home,” it calls for no less than a “cultural revolution” to change the economic and political systems that have led us to the brink of disaster from climate change: “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” The Pope actually labels the world’s dominant economic system (i.e. capitalism) “structurally perverse” for the way it produces gross inequality, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and an Earth that has become an “immense pile of filth.” And most important, it calls for viewing the issue of climate change from a moral perspective, thus cutting through the attempt to sideline this Pope and other spiritual leaders for butting into an issue which is ‘political.’ No, says the Pope, climate change is a moral issue because it stems directly from the “unfair, fossil-fuel based industrial model that harms the poor most” (Christian Science Monitor, 6/18/15.)
The document is clearly meant to influence the UN climate negotiations due to convene in Paris later this year. As if echoing the Nature’s Trust argument (see my blog on Nature’s Trust, 6/3/15), the Pope called for an awakening of all people of faith from all religions to “save God’s creation for future generations.” This is because the “dominion” over all other creatures that climate change doubters often cite as Biblical permission for humans to do whatever they choose to the Earth and animal life, is actually a charge for humans to “care for” the Earth and its creatures. Engaging in activities, as humans have for hundreds of years, that lead directly to pollution and mass extinctions, is thus characterized as a breach of Christian teaching. The Pope underlines this love for and duty to god’s creation by using the words of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi: “brother sun and sister moon.” He’s also quite specific about how this duty trumps both politics and the ‘might is right’ philosophy that guides much of our economic and political action:
This vision of 'might is right' has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all…Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. (quoted in CS Monitor).
Predictably, countless conservative and political actors have responded to the Pope’s encyclical with alarm, dismay and contempt. Jeb Bush, himself a Catholic through conversion, said on the basis of the leaked portion of the document, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” And the ever-moralistic, often mawkish David Brooks, commenting on NPR and the PBS Newshour, credited the Pope with a “beautiful” document on the connectedness of all life, but criticized his politics, saying that the Pope should stick to morals rather than getting embroiled in the political arena where he’s naïve and would have little effect anyway. As for his economics, which has been setting off alarm bells since he became Pope, conservatives, free-market advocates and the energy lobby have been uniform in their condemnation of the Pope’s call to reduce consumption and turn to renewable energy sources. “Energy is the essential building block of the modern world,” said Thomas Pyle of the Institute of Energy Research, a fossil-fuel ‘think’ tank. And the Wall Street Journal ran a headline saying that “Pope Blames Markets for Environment’s Ills.” But the Pope’s encyclical has anticipated most of these critics, including those who have condemned his Latin American concern for the poor as socialist or Marxist. No, insists the Pope, caring for the poor is not a sign of communism but the basic concern of Christians and Christianity. Further, Christianity does not simply concern itself with souls and the afterlife, but with the lives of humans and other creatures here and now, on Earth, which he actually calls “mother earth.” And still further, the Pope has demonstrated that he has a rather keen sense of politics and the limits of what politicians can accomplish:
A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments.
Not bad for a ‘naïve’ spiritual leader with his head in the clouds.
But rather than interpret what the Pope or his predictable critics say, perhaps some excerpts from the encyclical will better serve to convey both the radical substance and tone of this transformative (we devoutly hope) document.
We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels… We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.
We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition.
Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals….Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.
Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery. The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.
..it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.
A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. (all excerpts courtesy of Reuters.)
Again, this would be impressive as a position paper from a radical environmentalist. From the leader of the normally conservative Catholic Church, which historically has been anything but eager to confront political or economic powers whose favor it has, rather, tended to curry, this is indeed revolutionary. Rather than take cover as one of the great sacred cows of our world, Francis’s Church has exposed the sacred cows of political and economic sovereignty that have heretofore enjoyed virtual immunity. And this, in turn, speaks to the fact, less and less deniable with each day, that current generations do indeed face one of the greatest crises in all of human history. All one can say is thanks be to whatever influences (we know of some, like Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, whose office wrote the draft of the encyclical) and whatever in his Latin American background has disposed Pope Francis to cultivate his obvious concern for the poor and exploited of the earth, and for the earth itself. It is long overdue.