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Pope Francis’s Encyclical Is About Much More Than Climate Change


Yes, the pope believes there’s solid scientific consensus supporting the theory of climate change. In his new encyclical, “Laudato Si,” he covers that in a few terse paragraphs. But the encyclical is so much more than that. It’s beautiful and thought-provoking, coming at the question of man’s relationship with others and with the natural world from various compelling angles.

Needless to say, those relationships are ailing. Pope Francis gives us a masterful diagnosis of the ills of modern life, with the pollution and degradation of our common home, the Earth, as a major symptom, but certainly not the only symptom. Two hundred years of advances in technology have given us a lot of power over the natural world, but we have not used this power wisely. While many have attained levels of economic prosperity unheard of in history, billions remain mired in the same wretchedness and hunger that have characterized human experience since the dawn of time.

Those that have risen to prosperity suffer from other problems, like social and familial fragmentation, an unsatisfying and feverish consumerism, and, worst of all, the globalization of egoism and indifference. Why is this happening? The pontiff tells us it is because our technology is unmoored from ethics, and without sound values and morals, we cannot harness technology to achieve healthy relations with each other and our natural environment.

Everyone Is Ignoring the Best Parts

Let me quote from the encyclical: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light hearted superficiality has done us no good. “

Secular liberals are suddenly excited to hold up the pontiff as a fount of scientific wisdom and authority.

Those, to me, are words to live by. But the general public is not going to hear about this. Sadly, the din will be about global warming. Already environmentalists are proclaiming his newfound infallibility.

It is an interesting scene. Secular liberals are suddenly excited to hold up the pontiff as a fount of scientific wisdom and authority, even though the pope would be the first to admit he’s not a climatologist. On the other hand, pronouncements in his actual sphere of expertise, as the leader of a rich and vibrant religion that continues to declare in no uncertain terms that men and women should bow to the lovely will of their Creator, are conveniently ignored.

Over and over, Pope Francis says it is our duty to make sure that all our efforts to care for the Earth are infused with a spirit of tender and generous solicitude for our brothers and sisters: “The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift, which must be defended from various forms of debasement.”

Much of the post-release commentary ignores this because, as the pope goes on to say, many environmentalists can only see one solution to poverty: population control. He soundly making aid to developing countries “contingent on certain policies of reproductive health.” He reminds us that children and family are a great blessing to the poor, as they are to the rich.

What If We Cared for People as We Care for the Earth?

The pontiff also tells us that environmentalists’ concern for the Earth often stops there, and that the miseries of the poor and excluded are brought up as an afterthought. It is because these professionals and opinion makers live affluent lives and have no real contact with the poor, and this indifference “exists side by side with a green rhetoric.” Pope Francis asks them, plaintively, to “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

The pope directs us to recognize that ‘the world is God’s loving gift, and we are called to quietly imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.’

He addresses genetically modified organisms and how people decry their use because it threatens the integrity of the environment. On the other hand, they “sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos.” In a similar vein, he speaks out against abortion, asking us where is the logic of protecting vulnerable fish when we fail to protect a “human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” Over and over again, he comes back to the enduring Catholic position on human life: all of it, no matter its stage of development or its utility, is precious and inherently dignified.

What is his solution? This is a huge simplification, but I would say it boils down to humility. The humility of caring for our brothers and sisters as much as we care for ourselves, of treating the Earth as a great gift that deserves responsible stewardship, of accepting that there are objective truths and sound principles beyond our own desires and immediate needs.

Pretty tough prescription! And not as exciting as joining in the political brawls over the existence of climate change and what to do about it. Instead the pope, who named himself after the poor friar who delighted in creation, directs us to recognize that “the world is God’s loving gift, and we are called to quietly imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.” That may just be the cure for what ails us.