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How Pope Francis astutely pre-empted the criticisms of US conservatives over his eco-encyclical Laudato Si’

2015 June 27
by Paul Vallely

In the days just before the publication of the Pope’s controversial eco-encyclical Laudato Si’  those involved with drafting the encyclical were much exercised about how it would be received by conservative critics. Pope Francis by contrast, Vatican insiders have told me, was unfazed. He remains so in the face of the onslaught of criticisms which have indeed ensued.

The Pope’s acceptance that global warming is almost certainly man-made has irked the vocal minority with more skeptical views. They have responded by saying Francis has overlooked the ability of technology to provide solutions to climate change. They have upbraided him for ignoring the role of free markets in lifting millions out of poverty. They have criticised his dismissal of birth control as the answer to an over-crowded planet.

The truth is that Pope Francis saw all that coming. As the dust settles, after the whirlwind that accompanied the publication of the encyclical, closer examination of the document reveals that the Pope implanted within it strategies to rebut these attacks. Laudato Si’ turns out to be one of the shrewdest documents issued by the Vatican during the past century. It has revealed Pope Francis as a wily and sophisticated politician of the first order.

Francis learned a lesson from the reaction of some American conservatives who branded his previous papal manifesto, Evangelii Gaudium, as Marxist. He put in place a raft of defences against his eco-encyclical being dismissed as the work of some kind of left-wing maverick.

His  eco-encyclical takes its inspiration, like its name, from the writings of Francis of Assisi. The 13th century saint, like his 21st century namesake, combined a love for the poor, for peace and for nature. But if the saint’s theology was new the pope’s is traditional. Moreover he has taken care to locate his text firmly in the substantial body of teaching set out by previous popes, including two beloved by American conservatives, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Francis also made a point, highly unusually, of referencing the pioneering eco-theology of the Orthodox Church as well as citing no fewer than 18 teaching documents from Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world. All this demonstrated his acute awareness of the importance of skilful alliance-building on such a major issue.  You are not, he was telling critics, dealing with just one man here.

He took similar care over the science in the document. The Pope should stick to religion and leave science to the scientists, said one conservative, the Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum in one of a wave of “prebuttal” remarks as the encyclical was being finalised.  That is exactly what Francis did in accepting the view of the 97 percent of actively-publishing climate scientists who say human activity is a major contributor to global warming. The Pope’s political acumen was also clear from the way he timed the encyclical to target the three United Nations summits on aid finance, sustainable development and climate change later this year.

But there is something more profoundly subversive about Laudato Si’ than what it says on climate change.  On the day it was published the Pope privately told his closest advisers in Rome that the encyclical was not really an environmental document at all. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise.

The real problem, he insists, 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 has taught us that the world  is a resource to be manipulated for our 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.

It is in this analysis that the Pope’s replies to his conservative critics lie. Capitalism may have lifted millions out of poverty in Asia but it has done so at huge cost. That is shown by the catastrophic air pollution in China which has seen that country oust the United States from the unenviable position as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Worse than that, poorly-regulated capitalism in the global south has left behind millions more – the weakest and poorest.

Technological solutions fail to address the root problem. They often just change the problem without truly solving it, the Pope says. His critics have countered that gas from fracking is less polluting than burning coal. But that is like advocating dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies. Carbon-trading, Francis says, may just encourage speculation – and continued over-consumption by the rich.

Population is likewise a red herring, he insists. Poor people make hardly any contribution to global warming, according to one of the Pope’s chief advisers, the atheist professor John Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact. A 10 percent cut in emissions by rich nations, he says, would be far more effective in combatting global warming than any birth control programme.

In all this, 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. We have forgotten the common good as we have our common home, the earth.

Pope Francis is seen as such a threat by many conservatives because what he is saying is that the environmental crisis is really a crisis in 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 spoken boldly on eco-issues. 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.’’ He speaks with a new passion. He is unafraid to rebuke the world’s politicians for “weak” leadership. But he also gets into nitty-gritty detail to tell ordinary Catholics to use less heating and air conditioning, avoid plastic, sort and recycle garbage, use buses or car-shares, and turn off unnecessary lights.

Ecologists have been saying all that for decades, 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.’’ He asks ‘‘every person living on this planet’’ to stand before God, or our own consciences, and be honest with ourselves about the consumerist lifestyle to which so many of us are in thrall.

Pope Francis knows that if the consciences of ordinary Catholics can be pricked they may begin to adjust their life choices – and that could create pressure for the world’s politicians to change gear too.  Climate change skeptics may well find that in Pope Francis they have met their most formidable opponent.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester and the author of the forthcoming book ‘‘Pope Francis – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.’’

An edited version of this piece appeared in the New York Times

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