I’ll be honest, I never really hopped on the Pope Francis bandwagon. I find he’s a very good P.R. Pope. He says the right thing, making him very progressive sounding. However this seldom leads to doctrinal change in the church, much less to meaningful action. Not to spoil the end of this essay, but after reading the Pope’s latest encyclical (sort of the Papal version of “the open letter”) I don’t think my opinion has changed.
Laudato Si is a wonderfully crafted, eloquently written, and thoughtfully argued appeal to take heed to climate change. If you have a moment, skim through its 184 pages here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2105201-laudato-si-inglese.html.
The first chapter frames climate change as a social and moral issue affecting the poor. In perhaps his most erudite moment, Francis delivers this powerhouse of a quote:
“Today, however, 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.”
This is good stuff. It calls for dialogue, and draws our attention to marginalized populations. As this chapter goes on Francis proves his scientific chops as he concisely summarizes the trouble with greenhouse gases, and the danger of monocultures to biodiversity, among other things.
Chapter two does much of the same work as chapter one, but this time by way of a scripture soup. The third chapter is a cutting criticism of modernity which Francis finds too “anthropocentric,” void of awe and “mystery,” and obsessed with consumption of goods. The take away from this chapter is that in order to stop climate change, we must change society entirely. Throughout the entire encyclical, the emphasis is mostly on large scale policy. He’s not commanding individuals to drive more Priuses (perhaps Pria?), he’s reprimanding all society for neglecting the earth and neglecting the poor. It’s a timely and important message.
I really enjoyed reading Laudato Si. I found myself agreeing with everything Francis said along the way. The problem is it’s coming from the wrong person in the wrong way. I’m not ignorant of the fact that the Catholic Church claims a membership of one billion people, but there are no longer any nations where Catholicism is the official religion. The oil companies, the big box stores, and agri-business are not run as Catholic businesses. The Pope can’t threaten a country or corporation with an interdict or excommunications for polluting anymore. He has to face the fact that he hasn’t been able to determine public policy since Voltaire.
The three countries contributing most to climate change are China, the United States, and India. None of these countries have a catholic majority nor or the majority of their policy setter Catholics. In the US, the religious base that most vocally denies climate change is conservative Evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christians don’t care about the Pope, many don’t even consider him to be Christian. Why would they care what he has to say on the environment? This is a base Francis can’t play to.
If the pope wants to be relevant, he needs to play to the “average Joe” one billion Catholics, not politicians or non-Catholics. To that end, the most useful part of this whole encyclical was the last three pages. Here, Francis spells out two ecological prayers: “A Prayer for our Earth,” and “A Christian Prayer in Unison with Creation.” By writing out repeatable prayers, his climate change message is finally packaged in a wholly religious medium, giving it a much greater punch. This is not to say I believe prayer works on its terms (If I ask God for something, God will deliver that something), however I find prayer as a medium is a much more effective means of instilling a message in believers than a 200 page dissertation. Prayer has a way of making issues seem both more cosmic and more “homey” at the same time. Cosmic, in that it’s addressed to a ruler of the entire universe. “Homey” because prayer is something you do with family, and your church community, linked to a tradition you likely inherited from your parents. Cue Tevya.
Laudato Si is 184 pages of hard-to-digest facts. Besides Catholic theologians, who wants to read that? All of Francis’ word-smithing means nothing if the message isn’t built into the ritual life of Catholics. If Laudato Si’s sole legacy is that this Sunday some more progressive priests might work it into their homilies, Francis wasted a lot of time and ink. Francis needs to ensure that lines like “For the poor affected by global climate change, we pray to thee O Lord,” are as common in Mass as praying for the sick and elderly. He needs to lay out easy guidelines for local priests to talk about climate to their congregation. He needs to help set up church retreats centered on the environment. Once Francis has activated his billion strong base, then they can influence the policy makers.