Francis Strikes a Blow Against the Golden Calf

Agencia Brasil/Wikimedia Commons

I’m planning on reading Pope Francis’ 192-page encyclical on climate change in its entirety by the weekend, but in the mean time I’m counting on its presentation by the National Catholic Reporter‘s award-winning Vatican correspondent Joshua McElwee. It’s reasonably clear from the get-go that the alarm over this encyclical expressed before it was published by climate change deniers and worshipers of the Golden Calf of laissez-faire capitalism was entirely justified.

Pope Francis has clearly embraced what he calls a “very solid scientific consensus” that humans are causing cataclysmic climate change that is endangering the planet. The pope has also lambasted global political leaders for their “weak responses” and lack of will over decades to address the issue.

In what has already been the most debated papal encyclical letter in recent memory, Francis urgently calls on the entire world’s population to act, lest we leave to coming generations a planet of “debris, desolation and filth….”

Addressing world leaders directly, Francis asks: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

The pontiff has no tolerance for political leaders who hide behind alleged “scientific uncertainty” over climate change or the suggestion that solutions are not clear enough.

Francis writes, “As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. … Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

Such sharp words on the situation facing humanity pervade the more than 40,000-word letter, which has a far-ranging scope — first reviewing scientific conclusions on climate change and other environmental degradation before going into deeper implications for both the church and the global international system.

Speaking of “sharp words,” Francis also denounces those who argue for a biblical sanction for despoiling the earth:

Human life, the pope writes, is grounded by three relationships — those between God, neighbor and earth. “We are not God,” he states. “The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.”

Addressing interpretations of the Genesis stories that give full license to humans to be domineering and destructive, the pope states: “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

This will give some conservative evangelicals real heartburn.

But the really startling thing about Francis’ encyclical as compared to the usual secular climate change manifesto is his relentless insistence that ecological responsibility and economic and social justice are inseparably connected–man-made climate change is a crime against the poor–who will inevitably be most affected, and who are currently being left out of decision-making–as well as against creation generally.

“Today … we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” he writes.

Some conservatives may find solace in the fact that Francis extends his argument against violations of the created order into a defense of the “unborn.” But it’s hard to imagine economic conservatives of any theological or philosophical background being happy about this:

“When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society,” the pope writes later. “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….”

Francis also says that it has become a common agreement that the earth is “essentially a shared inheritance” of all, and that, therefore, rights to private property are not absolute.

“The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property,” the pope writes.

“The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone,” he continues later. “If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all.”

No wonder the reaction from Catholics engaged in conservative politics has been so pained and annoyed, full of injunctions to the Pope to mind his own business. Catholic teaching has never been a very easy bed-partner with unregulated capitalism. But Francis has most definitely split the sheets for good. And now all those good Catholic conservatives are going to have to struggle with discussion of this encyclical in their own dioceses and parishes! What agony!

I’ll have more when I’ve read the whole thing, and/or when interesting commentary emerges.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.