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Pope heads into a storm over climate change

2015 June 14
by Paul Vallely

Three men will this week present the most eagerly-awaited papal document in living memory. Two are senior clerics. But the third is a scientist. His presence gives a clue as to how explosive will be the row which will follow the publication of Pope Francis’s much-trailed encyclical on the environment.

The clerics are Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Vatican’s department for Justice and Peace, and Metropolitan John Zizioulas of the Orthodox Church. Alongside them will be the controversial Professor John Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Schellnhuber’s scientific credentials are impeccable. He is a mathematician, theoretical physicist and a climate expert who has played a key role, as an adviser to the German government and the president of the European Union, in waking up the world to global warming. A former research director of the Tyndall Centre in the UK, and visiting professor at Oxford, he has been described as “the father of the two degree target”. Schellnhuber insists that if the planet warms more than two degrees the earth could tip into unstoppable disaster.

But he is also known for his aggressive rhetoric. He has described the population of the United States as “climate illiterate”. His presence on the papal platform suggests that Pope Francis intends to tackle head on the phalanx of conservative critics who have subjected his document to a wave of vehement criticism even before it is published.

The encyclical – the highest level of teaching document a pope can issue, short of an infallible statement – will be published on Thursday. No papal document in recent history has been subjected to such intense dissection and criticism before it appears.  An unholy alliance of conservative politicians, free-market philosophers and climate change deniers, most particularly in the United States, have for months been running a campaign of what they call “pre-buttals” of  Pope’s anticipated eco-teachings.

Sources inside the Vatican suggest that these opponents will be deeply unhappy with what Pope Francis will say this week.

“The Pope will back strong limits on greenhouse gas emissions,” one Vatican insider told me. “The encyclical outlines a vision for the future of the planet. It wants to shift investment away from the military and towards low-carbon energy and sustainable development. And Francis will call for the transfer of money from the rich to the poor. Those who are richer have greater responsibilities.”

It will not just be the Pope’s conclusions which will annoy his critics. They will be irked by his analysis. Francis will link environmental problems with world poverty and what he calls an “economics of exclusion” which throws the poorest and most vulnerable on the scrapheap.

“The Pope feels that the indifference of the rich to both the environment, and to the poor, have their roots in the same spiritual malaise,” a source close to the document’s authors in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace told me. “Market forces alone, bereft of ethical values, cannot solve these intertwined crises”. Money has become a master rather than a servant of human good. “Francis will be critical of conventional economic measurements like Gross Domestic Product because they don’t include the cost of the degradation of nature – or of an economy which kills the poorest”.

Such talk is guaranteed to provoke critics like Stephen Moore, the chief economist at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Washington think-tank, who has said: “This is a Pope who clearly has some Marxist leanings” who has “embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free”.

The American presidential hopeful Rick Santorum – a Catholic, like Moore – has urged Francis to “leave science to the scientists”.  Bill Donohue, president of the US Catholic League, normally a staunch defender of popes, has even opined that Catholics are not bound by what Francis says except on faith and morals, adding: “No one has ever said that air pollution is intrinsically evil”.

Sources in the Vatican say the Pope is unfazed by this. “It’s not Marxism,” one cardinal told me. “It’s classic Catholic Social Teaching.”

By that he means a tradition which stretches back over a century to when, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII, at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, tried to find a third way between communism and capitalism. In the Sixties Pope John XXIII used it during the Cold War to call for a ban on nuclear weapons.  After him Pope Paul VI published an encyclical on how the post-colonial world should develop socially and economically

Previous popes have pronounced on the environment. Pope John Paul II called for action on the depleting ozone layer. Benedict XVI called for cuts in greenhouse gases and was dubbed the Green Pope after installing solar panels in the Vatican and buying into a reforestation project to offset its CO2 emissions.

But none of that caused the stir that Francis is making.

Pope Francis is different for several reasons. None of the papacy’s previous 300 encyclicals have been solely devoted to eco-issues. And Francis has already taken a noticeably harder line on the environment.

“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,” he has said. “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain [its] frenetic rhythm of consumption”. “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless”.

His rhetoric is uncompromising: “God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, but nature never does,” he has said. “Man has slapped nature in the face”. “A Christian who does not protect creation…  does not care about the work of God.”

For other popes the environment was a side issue. For Francis it is intertwined with his central concern of creating “a poor Church for the poor”. His critics are afraid, one Vatican insider told me, “that with Francis he really means it!”

Certainly, as the first Third World pope ever, he knows first-hand the devastation wrought upon ordinary people by the neo-liberal policies of Washington during Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis – when half the population was plunged below the poverty line. He described St Francis of Assisi, when he became the first pope every to take that name, as “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and safeguards creation”.

The title of his new encyclical Laudato si is taken from the famous prayer of St Francis which talks of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and “our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us”. In keeping with Francis’s radical instincts it is the first encyclical in church history not to have a Latin name. It is in Italian, as is its subtitle: “on the care of our common home”.

Francis also has a reputation for close-focus. His last document, Evangelii Gaudium, got down to the detail of criticizing economic trickledown theory. Laudato si will present a nitty-gritty challenge to the lifestyle of individuals, the theories of ideologues and the policies of government alike. Tackling climate change, it will say, needs a moral revolution.

The row may only just have begun.

Paul Vallely is the author of  Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism which will be published by Bloomsbury in August

an edited version of this appeared in The Sunday Times 14 June 2015


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