The number of words already published, aired, or posted online analyzing Pope Francis’s “Laudato Si” (Praise be to You) encyclical clearly dwarf the 183 pages and 40,600-plus words in the encyclical itself.
Lots of praise amidst also some dissent in those reams of analyses. But it’s patently clear that those strongly concerned over the issue of the warming climate are overwhelmingly pleased, thrilled even, with the pope’s in-depth observations. And, as to be expected, that those indelibly resistant to the growing body of scientific evidence remain unswayed by the entry into the dialog of arguably the world’s single most respected individual.
In considering the pope’s original logic and wording, and also the extensive Monday-morning quarterbacking it precipitated, it’s notable that the news before, on, and immediately after the official release was dominated in the U.S. by not the one, but two compelling church- and religion-related “breaking news” stories. (Along with a third ongoing story concerning the two escaped convicted murderers from an upstate New York prison.)
Each commanded their share of a diminishing amount of prime-time and mainstream news media real estate, and probably also of the regular sermonizing at Catholic churches nationwide on the Sunday following. And it’s not surprising, nor is it “wrong,” that the murders of nine innocents at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., sucked up most of the media’s attention and time. And not the pope’s pronouncement of the dilemma facing the planet.
Encyclical’s Major Components
In coming to terms with the enormous breadth and depth of what Pope Francis describes as “the ecological crisis,” with its emphasis on climate change, let’s compartmentalize: It may help to think separately about how he approached the fundamental earth science, and then, separately, about his approach to what to do about it – the policy side.
Few in the climate-concerned or worried category will likely have much trouble with how the encyclical addresses the science. In this respect, the New York Times’s June 18 headline that the pope in the encyclical “aligns himself with mainstream science on climate” is on-target … “at least to the degree possible in a religious document meant for a broad audience,” as Times reporter Justin Gillis wrote. Gillis added that the encyclical’s sections on the science “could serve as a syllabus for Environmental Science 101 in just about any college classroom these days.”
That’s a pill not easy for died-in-the-wool climate science doubters to swallow. But it is what it is, and the encyclical’s scientific grounding is about as good as any reasonable and respected climatologist could possibly hope for. That should come as no surprise given that the pope’s and his surrogates’ run-up to the encyclical included consultations with some of the world’s most respected climate experts.
Beyond the science that underlies much of the encyclical itself, there is of course also the historical references to the church’s own liturgy. From the very first words of the encyclical, Pope Francis invoked historical Catholic teachings, then moved right up through the thoughts and words of his immediate predecessors to explain his reasoning.
“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with varied coloured flowers and herbs,” he wrote. He did so in the first paragraph, after recalling his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi’s reminder that “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.”
That he intends to pull no rhetorical punches is made clear in just the second paragraph:
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.
All of which is merely forerunner to the pope’s widely reported statement that “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
No pulled punches indeed (although, it must be noted, no recognition of risks of over-population and no change in the church’s position on abortion).
Language ‘less measured’ on policy?
It is in the third leg of this three-legged stool that the pope in his encyclical attracts some of the most interesting and, some would say, well-grounded critiques. This is where he again pulls no punches, here pointing the finger directly at the excesses of capitalism and of market-based systems, the tireless pursuit of personal wealth and of “stuff,” and at what he and others see as the insatiable materialism of the wealthier societies and the abandonment of the planet’s many who are grossly “abandoned and maltreated.”
“When the pope does transition in his encyclical from fact to judgment,” the Times’s Gillis wrote in that June 18 report, “his language is less measured.”
And certainly less likely to quickly bring on-board some of the very private sector interests and political and social conservatives who themselves could some day become part of the solution and no longer part of the naysaying chorus of do-nothings.
One can point to a long series of blogs, blitherings, and talk-show blowhards fulminating against the pope and the encyclical on this score, going well beyond the usual rants of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the ideological blogosphere. Many of those might best be dismissed as just the usual stuff.
But it’s in the thinking of conservative yet nonideological analysts such as the Times’s David Brooks – himself no climate science doubter – that one finds a stream of serious and worth-considering analysis and criticism.
Calling the encyclical “over all … surprisingly disappointing,” Brooks opined on the newspaper’s op-ed page June 23 that:
… There are too many overdrawn statements [like the ‘pile of filth’ statement above] …. He [the pope] is relentlessly negative … when describing institutions in which people compete for political power or economic gain. At one point, he links self-interest with violence. He comes out against technological advances that will improve productivity by replacing human work. He specifically condemns market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, even though these cap-and-trade programs are up and running in places like California ….
You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity …. [in] the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.
The pope’s unbending condemnations of carbon emissions trading credits and of other market-based approaches could be something of a poison pill for those who want to see serious progress in reducing carbon emissions. That might include, for instance, a carbon tax, popular among those dreading the likely prospects of years of litigation that would surely envelop a regulations-only approach.
In the end, the Laudato Si encyclical is without question a major boost for those wanting international leaders – convening this December in Paris – to at last move forward with serious greenhouse gas reduction efforts. It’s for sure one of the, if not THE, major climate stories of 2015.
In the church’s bringing a religious, ethical, and moral component to the shop-worn political and science-focused go-nowhere “debate,” the encyclical embraces a healthy and much-needed focus on equity, on the nation’s and the world’s downtrodden, and on affected issues such as the worldwide poverty and migration challenges plaguing countries across the globe.
Whether the pope’s new message, in weeks and months ahead, will be echoed across the pews and pulpits of the nation’s and the world’s Catholic churches and other congregations remains to be seen. Whether its teachings will be heard and listened to in the halls of the nation’s and world’s key legislatures also is as yet uncertain, and not altogether promising.
But in religious communities, there’s long been the frequent reference to “BC” and “AD.” In the future, the world of religious ecology and climate science may come to embrace what we’ll here call “BE” and “AE” – Before Pope Francis’s encyclical, and after it.