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The Hopeful Environmentalist

Pope Francis goes to Washington – but speaks past the politicians

The Pope in Congress: receptive audience? Tony Gentile/Reuters

Pope Francis this week made a historic presentation to the Joint Sessions of the US Congress. And in so doing, he took his message straight to the American people: “Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States.”

Indeed, a great many Americans were thrilled to watch a religious leader whom we hold in high regard (approval ratings that have ranged from 76% in February 2014 to 59% in July of this year) speak religious truth to power with a government that we hold in low regard (approval ratings that have remained at a dismal 15%).

But not all Americans. The image of the pope speaking in the halls of the US Congress highlights the extent to which his messages have entered the partisan politics which that hall has come to symbolize.

Raising ire among conservatives

Much in the way that we watch a president’s State of the Union address in the same venue, how many of us watched over the pope’s shoulders to gauge the reactions of Vice President Joe Biden or Speaker John Boehner to his words? How many of us studied the pan shots of the audience to see which side of the aisle was clapping and which was not?

As the prominent evangelical lobbyist Reverend Richard Cizik once pointed out, “to be biblically consistent means you have to, at times, be politically inconsistent.” And indeed, Pope Francis hit on hot button issues that span the political spectrum, such as immigration, abortion, religious freedom, the death penalty, the refugee crisis, armed conflict and climate change. But the pope’s speech wove these issues together around Catholic doctrine, with a central focus on human dignity and a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things, which is consistent with his Ignatian spirituality that seeks to “find God in all things.”

Many of the issues that he spoke about are familiar territory for the Vatican. But, the issue of climate change in the wake of his recent Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ represents new territory for the Holy See.

And with it, the pope has raised the ire of conservative critics. Indeed, surveys show that only 50% of Republicans believe that “global warming evidence is solid” compared to 88% of Democrats. And that is playing out in the presidential primaries where Republican candidates deny the reality of the issue while Democratic candidates are presenting policies to address it.

One does not have to look hard for scathing criticism, finding it in places like The National Review, The American Conservative, The American Spectator and, perhaps most notably, The Washington Post with George Will’s over-the-top poison pen essay, entitled “Pope Francis’s fact-free flamboyance.”

All have painted this pope as a left-leaning liberal at best and a Marxist or communist at worst.

Adding up?

Much of their criticisms seem more shrill, mean-spirited and reactionary than thoughtful, engaged and critical. But at their core, three issues rise to the top of their attack.

First, the pope does not understand the market and he is hostile to capitalism. This line of attack should not come as a surprise. Studies show a strong correlation between support for free-market ideology and rejection of climate science. The Acton Institute think tank warns against the encyclical’s “deeply negative views of the free market,” calling it “well intentioned [but] economically flawed,” while noting that capitalism has raised many around the world from poverty to security. Other critics share a similar sentiment, defending the accomplishments of capitalism and attacking those who question them as naïve.

Yet, the pope’s critique is not a blanket attack on capitalism, but rather an attack on the kind of “unbridled” capitalism and market fundamentalism that has taken hold within many sectors of society. Francis writes:

Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.

But he warns:

economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.

In the wake of the financial crisis, when bank executives reaped millions of dollars by bringing the economy to near ruin, and then received government bailouts for their misdeeds, who can argue that something is amiss in the priorities of our current system?

Second, he exaggerates the environmental issues we face today. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis states that “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” and that “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”

This has created a backlash that, in the words of George Will, “Hyperbole is a predictable precursor to yet another UN Climate Change Conference” and that “rhetorical exhibitionism increases as it effectiveness diminishes.” Other critics say his claims are not scientifically grounded and that “we as a species have gotten better, not worse, at managing our relationship with the planet.”

And yet, that is not what science is telling us. The UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warns that humans have changed the Earth’s ecosystems over the past 50 years “more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history.” In the last 100 years, 816 species have become extinct and 11,046 more are threatened with extinction; 44% of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are being fished at their biological limit and are threatened; the global rate of deforestation averaged nine million hectares per year in the 1990s; and greenhouse gases have passed 400 parts per million, with serious implications for the global climate.

Mixing it up in America – the pope meeting schoolchildren in Washington. Gary Cameron/Reuters

While pundits in Washington or New York may see a clean environment, the rest of the world does not.

One of out five people in the developing world do not have access to safe drinking water and two out of five do not have basic sanitation. So extreme are the human impacts on the environment that geophysicists have proposed formal recognition that we are in a new geologic epoch; that we have left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene, an unprecedented period in human history in which one cannot describe the natural environment without including the influence of mankind.

To come to terms with that new reality, we must develop a new system of ethics and values to assume our new responsibility. This is what the pope is presenting in Laudato si’, much to the consternation of those who deny the reality of climate change.

Third, he and his message are simplistic. One critic writes that Laudato si’ “starts with a fairy tale;” another describes it as having “the intellectual tone of fortune cookies.” In short, Pope Francis is being dismissed as an unsophisticated lightweight.

Sign of the times

But that dismissal is from people who are not his primary audience. This Pope is writing and speaking his message for the average person, not for theologians or intellectuals; and it is resonating, much to the consternation of the latter.

The letter provoked rapid response from around the world. And within a month, forty percent of American Catholics and one-third of all Americans had heard of it, many seeking it out and finding it to be accessible, engaging and moving – sentiments that could not be said for many Encyclicals of the past, if people even knew what an Encyclical was.

We need to pause to consider that statement: average people are reading and discussing an Encyclical Letter. This is, in itself, historic. The mere fact that it was actually leaked is astonishing.

And we can thank both his message and the times in which it is delivered for that new reality. Past Encyclical Letters were noticed mainly by academic and religious scholars who studied them for years before they began to filter into the public consciousness through social teaching. But Laudato si’ has hit the global population with unprecedented speed through social media in ways that were unthinkable just 20 years ago.

In the end, nothing new was presented in Pope Francis’ speech to Congress. But his ability to use the rostrum of the US House of Representatives to speak directly to our elected officials and to each of us is new.

This pope is not afraid to both create a radical message (not just for conservatives, but also for church leaders – only 40 of 250 bishops even showed up for a workshop on Laudato si’) and then make sure it is delivered to an audience around the world that is eager for leadership where little can be found in our political sphere. He is raising the relevance of the Vatican but also religion in general in ways that a political candidate, who will profess his or her religion to get elected, cannot.

The 1965 encyclical Letter Gaudium et spes argues that “The Church has the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”

Whether you agree with him or not, Pope Francis has certainly embraced that responsibility to the fullest.

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