Is the Pope Catholic?

AAP/Fabrizio Belluschi

Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I’ve always found it a bit difficult to take men who go to work wearing silk dresses, lots of jewellery, and improbably large hats terribly seriously. Plenty of people do, though, to judge by the reaction to the Pope Francis’ latest encyclical on climate change.

Given that the Pope can comment on issues he’s clearly no expert on, perhaps the rest of us could offer a few observations about his (lower case for the moment) role in key contemporary debates.

Theology is not my strong suit so perhaps I’m missing something, but isn’t the world actually supposed to be a “vale of tears” according to Christian beliefs? Isn’t it a fundamental, preordained part of the scheme of things? I thought God was supposed to be sending His son back to judge us when we inevitably stuff things up. Has there been a change of plan?

Whatever the merits of this rather deflating doctrine, it does seem fundamentally at odds with the idea that we might actually do anything about climate change or much else for that matter. On the contrary, if you take the Bible seriously, which we assume the Pope does, then attempting to make the world a better place is quite literally a waste of time.

I’m not sure if the Church takes the idea of Papal infallibility seriously anymore, but if it does, we must also assume the Pope knows what he – and He, for that matter – is talking about. The Pope, after all, is God’s chief representative on earth – or he is for many Christians, at least.

So can we assume from all this that we don’t necessarily and inevitably wreck the place after all? Has God changed His mind, or did He not see all this coming? Either way, it’s not a good look for a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient Being.

In the Pope’s defence, I don’t think we should blame him for all the confusion. He – the Pope, that is – seems like quite an unassuming and likeable sort of chap. This is no small achievement in itself given that Michelangelo decorated his workplace and he’s fawned over everywhere he goes. One might be forgiven for taking oneself rather seriously under such circumstances.

Rather surprisingly, and unlike most of his predecessors, he’s got a good line in self-deprecation, too. His response to questions about gays and the church was especially engaging – don’t ask me, I’m just the Pope. I paraphrase, but not a lot. Doesn’t sound too infallible, to me, and that’s a good thing.

But like most religions, the Catholic Church doesn’t really encourage critical thinking amongst its followers. On the contrary, the principal role of the Church seems to be to do the thinking for the flock. For advocates of climate change mitigation this could actually be good news: if the Pope says climate change is real, that might finally shut up some of the Catholic sceptics, at least, and actually encourage some real action.

Or it may not. Unfortunately, we can’t be certain the Pope’s words will have the desired effect. One of the great attractions of the Catholic Church is the way they deal with “sin”. No matter how bad you are, it seems, you can go along to confession and be forgiven. It’s a great selling point. While this might make Catholicism the religion of choice for the world’s financial community, perhaps, it doesn’t really look like a recipe for saving the planet. Behaviour has got to be sustainable to make a difference.

So while the Pope may be right to argue that “those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”, his message is likely to be ignored or not taken seriously. It is hard to imagine that powerful vested interests in the US or Australia will suddenly change their thinking, much less their personally enriching behaviour.

There is much to admire in the Pope’s call for an end to “compulsive consumerism” and the integration of questions of social and environmental justice. However, such pleas might carry more weight if the Church itself – a rich and powerful organisation with a portfolio of some €6 billion in ready money, not to mention the art treasures, real estate, and so on – showed the way in wealth redistribution and ethical investment.

This will be yet another test for the embattled Cardinal Pell, who is currently the Vatican’s treasurer. If the Church in the form of Cardinal Pell can really bring itself to start redistributing its wealth in a serious ways then that would be an empirically verifiable modern day miracle.

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