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Climate change deniers, free-market ideologues and blinkered consumers may finally have met their match in Pope Francis

2015 June 26
by Paul Vallely

As the dust settles after the whirlwind that was Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical three truths have emerged. The first is that most of the most vivid reactions tell you more about those who have delivered them than they do about what the Pope actually has said. It was “the gospel according to Greenpeace,” proclaimed one of the Pope’s more polite critics, while the head of Greenpeace greeted it as “a welcome rebuke to climate-change deniers”.

The second revelation is more interesting.  It is that Pope Francis – whom many regard as an icon of simplicity and humility – is actually a wily and sophisticated politician of the highest order. And he has produced one of the shrewdest church documents for many decades.

In the days before the publication of Laudato Si’ those involved with drafting the encyclical were much exercised about how the text would be received by conservative critics, most particularly in the United States. Pope Francis by contrast, Vatican insiders have told me, was unfazed.

That was why he chose the climate change scientist Professor John Schellnhuber to join the panel of those presenting the document at its official launch in Rome. Schellnhuber had previously described the United States as a “climate illiterate” nation. It did not seem that papal compromise was in the offing.

The Pope was secure in the vision outlined in the encyclical not least because it was rooted in a lifetime of Jesuit spirituality informed by 18 years of living among some of the world’s poorest people as ‘Bishop of the Slums’ in Buenos Aires. He expected the rich to feel challenged by he perspective of the poor.

Yet he was also confident that he had put in place a raft of defences against the accusations that he was some kind of maverick romantic loner whose previous papal text, Evangelii Gaudium, had been branded as Marxist by some US conservatives.

His new encyclical on the environment takes its inspiration, like its name, from the writings of Francis of Assisi, the 13th century saint who like his 21st century namesake combined a love for the poor, for peace and for nature. But the Pope’s theology is traditional. Moreover he took care to locate it firmly in the substantial body of teaching set out by the previous four popes including two beloved by US conservatives, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Francis also made a point, highly unusually, of referencing the extensive eco-theology of the Orthodox Church as well as citing no fewer than 18 teaching documents from Catholic bishops’ conferences all round the world. That gave new papal endorsement of their doctrinal authority. But it also demonstrated the Pope’s acute awareness of the importance of skilful alliance-building on such a major issue.

The message to his opponents was clear: You are not just dealing with one man here.

Francis took similar care over the science in the document. There is an irony to the admonition by critics, such as presidential candidate Jeb Bush, that the pontiff should stick to religion and leave science to the scientists. That is exactly what Francis has done. He has accepted the view of the 97 per cent of actively-publishing climate scientists who say global warming is almost certainly man-made.

True, he inserted a few nuances and caveats into his writing, but he argues unequivocally for a cut in the burning of fossil fuels – and for rich countries to bear most of the cost of cleaning up the climate mess our industries have created over the last century.

His political acumen was also clear from the way Francis timed the encyclical to target three important upcoming United Nations summits – one in Addis Ababa next month on aid finance, one at the UN General Assembly in September to fix sustainable development goals for the next 15 years, and the Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.

But there is a third truth, and a more profound and subversive one. The Pope told his closest advisers in Rome on day the encyclical was published that Laudato Si’ was not an environmental encyclical but a social one. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise.

The real problem, he says, is the myopic mentality which has failed to address climate change to date.  The rich world’s indifference to the despoliation of the environment, in pursuit of short-term economic gain, is rooted in a wider problem. Market economics have taught us that the world, and other people, are a resource to be manipulated for our individual gain. This has led us into unjust and exploitative economic systems which Francis calls “a throwaway culture” which treats not just unwanted things but also unwanted people – the poor, the elderly and the unborn – as waste.

Capitalism may maximise our choices, he observes, but it offers no guidance on how we should choose. Insatiable consumerism has blinkered our vision and left us unable to distinguish between what we need and what we merely want. The market has tricked us into confusing technological advance with progress. It has reduced our politics to a maximisation of our individual freedom and choice. It has clouded our vision of the long-term. We have forgotten the common good as we have our common home, the earth.

This is why Pope Francis is seen as such a threat by many conservatives. He is saying that the environmental crisis is really a crisis in liberal laissez-faire capitalism. And he is saying that the answer is a profound change at all levels – political, economic, social, communal, familial and personal. This is not Marxist, for it lacks a materialist view of history. But it is revolutionary – and deeply disturbing to those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Previous popes have said something similar. The idea that our hearts need an “ecological conversion” was first coined by Pope John Paul II. But it was merely a side issue in other papacies. For Francis it is central. He is the first pope from the global South and from the outset he called for “a poor Church for the poor”.

That perspective is rooted in his lived experience. He saw half the population of Argentina, including many in its middle class, plunged below the poverty line when Washington consensus neo-liberal policies imposed adjustment austerity on his native land. And he saw how outsiders’ industrial pollution and destruction of the rainforest created short-term financial gain for a few which resulted in long-term pain for the many in both environmental and human terms.

All that created another quality that the Pope’s opponents fear – his passion. Laudato Si’ is full of fierce phrases like: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” or “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.”

Added to that is the specificity of his engagement. At a global level he baldly rebukes world leaders by saying: “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been.” At a technical level he dives in to the detail on carbon trading, which he fears with promote both financial speculation and continued over-consumption by the rich. On an activist level he advocates consumer boycotts saying: “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act”.

That opens him to criticisms on his detail. (He ignores the fact that millions have been raised out of poverty by global capitalism. And he seems to have a blind faith in the efficacy of state solutions and big government.) But it gives his message great punch. He is unafraid to get into the nitty-gritty. He wants us all to use less heating and wear warmer clothes, avoid plastic, use less water, cook only what we can eat, sort and recycle garbage, use buses or car-shares, plant trees, avoid air conditioning and turn off unnecessary lights.

Ecologists have been saying all that for decades, with limited success. But Pope Francis is delving to a deeper level in the human psyche. Such “simple daily gestures”, he says, will “break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. And he says it without hectoring but by asking “every person living on this planet” to stand before God, or our own consciences, and acknowledge the consumerist lifestyle we do not want to relinquish and pray to “avoid the sin of indifference”.

The man who is today probably the most prominent person on the planet may just succeed. After all he is not asking his followers to do anything he has not done himself. Before he became Pope he lived out just a lifestyle – eating simply, rejecting a chauffeur-driven car for the bus and subway, wearing second-hand clothes and choosing to spend his time in the slums with the poor rather than amid the luxury of the rich.

All Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education, he says – families, schools, universities, media and churches. In the US bishops have already said they will encourage priests to preach about the encyclical over the summer. Across the globe there are 400,000 pulpits from which the message will be proclaimed to 1.2 billion Catholics.

Pope Francis knows that if ordinary Catholics can be persuaded to adjust their life choices even a little that could create pressure for the world’s politicians to change gear too.  Climate change deniers may well find that in Pope Francis they have met their most formidable opponent to date.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.  His book Pope Francis – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism will be published by Bloomsbury in September.


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