It’s the ecology, stupid: pope’s encyclical shakes up US politics

Shining a light on religion and politics. mustafaaydinol/flickr, CC BY-ND

Pope Francis’ encyclical on creation and the care for the environment, with its title coming from a famous prayer of Francis of Assisi, Laudato Si’, continues the tradition of a Catholic Church that does not shy away from social and political issues.

The encyclical is a very political document, and it is published at an important moment: at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign (with a lot of Catholic candidates in the GOP) and three months before the papal trip to the United States – probably the most difficult of the pontificate because of what I have called “Pope Francis’ American problem.”

Francis’ encyclical will play a significant role in most Catholic schools next year, during a crucial presidential campaign, and it will color Francis’ visits to the East Coast – and addresses the US Congress – at the end of September.

In the encyclical, drafted by a committee overseen by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, Pope Francis does not mince words and he does not appease those American Catholics of neo-conservative persuasion who in the last few months have waged an unprecedented preemptive war against the encyclical.

No longer politics as usual. european_parliament/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

As expected, the pope accepts the scientific consensus about manmade change in climate patterns, and appears cautious about issues like genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Science is a partner of faith in this call of the pope to save the Earth before it is too late. This argument is a compelling one for a culture, such as the American one, in which science and religion have a long and complicated relationship. But it is not the most interesting part of the encyclical from a political perspective.

What is distinctive about this letter is that Francis raises issues that are going to have a hard time being heard in the prosperous Northern Hemisphere, and in particular by those who have made of the promise of prosperity their secular gospel.

Ideology of unlimited resources

First of all, Francis criticizes what he calls the “technocratic paradigm,” which he says has impaired our ability to see reality – that is, the real economy affecting real people instead of financial economy of the global markets of bond, equity, derivative securities. This technocratic perspective has largely eviscerated the ability of politics to take care of the common good, including the poor and of the environment, he says.

This is not a vague statement. Francis mentions explicitly the financial crisis of 2007-2008 as a lost opportunity: we could have learned something from that crisis and changed something, but we did not.

Not a fan of economic power centers that protect their interests over needs of the poor. petrick/flickr, CC BY

In the encyclical, he argues that the technocratic paradigm is something that obfuscates our information system as well, and therefore our ability to make decisions. Here, the pope talks openly about the interests of global economic centers that misdirect or silence voices of those who go against their immediate interests. This comes at the expense of the poor and of the environment, and in general of a healthy “human ecology.”

Market worship

This encyclical is much more about political power than science.

Francis appeals to a new system of international relations based on global economic justice and global environmental justice. The encyclical puts on the stand the ideology of unlimited prosperity, based on the ideology of unlimited resources – and they are judged severely and called “a lie.”

The “American dream” is not mentioned explicitly, but it is the elephant (and not only the GOP’s elephant) in the room. Here, Europe is in the same situation as the US in light of the Americanization of the old continent’s lifestyle over the last 70 years.

The encyclical criticizes a “divinized market” – a market that is worshiped as the only creator and judge. The market alone is not the panacea to social ills, the pope argues: it actually causes social ills when it is the only prevailing rule.

As with his previous – and critical – document Evangelii Gaudium (November 24 2013), Pope Francis raises his voice in defense of the poor and casts a light on inequalities, talking about debt, for example, as a form of political control in our global financial system.

But Francis is also going to raise some eyebrows on the political left in the US.

On the hot-button “life issues,” Francis repeats that no ecological argument is possible if embryos are not considered nature to be protected. Abortion, he writes, is incompatible with an ecological conscience.

As to gender issues, Francis says that human ecology entails respecting the gender God gave us without manipulating it, and that means acknowledging and respecting sexual differences. Sexual differences between genders do exist, the pope says, and human ecology means respecting these differences between men and women.

Politics as a tool

Finally, this encyclical is deeply political because it explicitly advocates that people turn to the political process when it comes to important decisions about the future of the planet.

Francis sees politics as a necessary defense against the unlimited appetites of economic interests. Christian faith is about a “liberation” that comes from Jesus Christ and not from a political message. It is the political process that is essential to protect the poor and the environment.

Francis’ church is a politically non-neutral church, just as technology is not neutral. Technological tools are not neutral, and they do not help bridge inequalities, but, Francis says, they do serve powerful economic interests. Francis’ church stands with the poor.

At the end of the letter, with regard to how to change things, the pope is exhorting people to challenge corrupt and inefficient governments. States and governments are crucial to limit the power over the powerless.

In the final section of the encyclical, Francis repeats the ideal of global governance – an old Catholic dream born of medieval Europe, but recently updated by John XXIII and Benedict XVI in a new fashion. This is part of Catholic globalism. But Catholicism is also local, and American Catholicism will be a particularly interesting test for this encyclical.

In the presidential election of 1928, Al Smith, the Catholic candidate for the Democratic Party, was crushed by his opponent because of his Catholicism. Today, we do not know what kind of use the Republican Catholic candidates for president will make of the encyclical during the presidential campaign.

We can be sure of one thing, however, after the publication of Francis’ Laudato Si’: none of them will ask, as the ill-fated Al Smith did in 1928, “What the hell is an encyclical?”