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Pope Francis Should Stop Washing His Robes


In a speech to a joint session of Congress Thursday, Pope Francis is expected to echo his favorite theme of late: fighting climate change to ostensibly help the poor.

Francis has been banging this drum since his latest encyclical, recently telling a Foundation for Sustainable Development meeting on “environmental justice and climate change” (translation by Google, so don’t bite if it’s inexact): “We cannot forget the serious social implications of climate change are the poorest hurt everywhere with [the biggest] consequences! …the climate issue is a matter of justice; and also of solidarity, that justice must never be separated. At stake is the dignity of each person, as people, as a community, as women and men.”

He also labeled the United Nations’ sustainable development agreement one of two “crucial events” for moving towards “a true alliance to reach global environmental agreements.”

Apocalypse Now, Please

I’m not sure who Pope Francis’s religious advisors are, but it seems they’ve forgotten the Gospel isn’t directly aimed at helping the poor or averting supposed environmental disasters. The Gospel is centrally about saving our eternal souls, about addressing spiritual—not material—poverty. Yes, the material world is broken because of sin, and it will be restored after the Last Day, but that’s an effect, and not the focus of scripture. What’s primary is our souls, not our pocketbooks.

In the course of loving our neighbors, as the Bible commands, of course we should seek to meet their physical needs, both through and beyond seeking to meet their spiritual needs. Acknowledging the truth that the world will always contain hungry people is not an excuse for not feeding the people in your life whom you have a duty to feed.

Maybe Pope Francis should welcome the environmental apocalypse he thinks is coming.

But the human condition of sin has ensured that everyone cannot be rich, healthy, and a lover of God. It’s sad, but true. We will never achieve utopia in this world. That’s kind of the central story arc of the Bible: How humans screwed themselves and the whole world up, and how Jesus has and will ultimately put things to right. Getting all the way to a perfect eternity, however, requires first an apocalypse.

So maybe Pope Francis should welcome the environmental apocalypse he thinks is coming. That’s partly a joke and partly serious, because every time I see another Planned Parenthood butchering video I am ready for Jesus to take me and my kiddos right up to Paradise and end this sick, mad world. But at the very least, Francis could do a better job communicating what my Catholic friends keep insisting to me he really does mean.

Instead of making statements that allow the media to avoid covering his pastoral activities, Francis should do what everyone who has ever received media coaching has learned as the number-one tip: Decide your talking point, and don’t deviate. That way, you control the conversation. I cannot watch the media circus surrounding Francis and not think that either Francis and his entourage don’t know jack about messaging, or that the pope I want to respect and admire like I did John Paul II really is doing this on purpose because, like many popes in history, he cares more about political power than religious fidelity.

Want to Help the Poor? Support Markets

Even if Pope Francis wants to refocus Christianity on people’s material well-being, command-and-control global agreements that decommission power plants (and limit local self-government) are not the way to go. Here’s Francis making the opposite argument in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si:

Climate change is a global problem with grave implications…It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.

There are lots of evidence-based responses to this. One is that global warming benefits the environment. CO2 is plant food. Global crop production has increased because of global warming, meaning millions of more people have not starved to death. Thanks, global warming, for helping the poor!

Put Your Hands Where Your Mouth Is

But perhaps the most poignant illustration of this reality comes from a past TED talk. In it, Swedish professor Hans Rosling tells of when his family first bought a washing machine. His grandmother came over to see it, insisted she push the start button, and watched the entire first cycle: “Throughout her life, [grandmother] had been heating water with firewood, and she had hand-washed laundry for seven children, and now she was going to watch electricity do that work,” he says.

Five billion of the world’s seven billion people don’t have access to washing machines today, Rosling notes, because they don’t have the infrastructure and purchasing power. He says they live below “the wash line.” Most of the women in the world wash clothes by hand. “It’s a hard, time-consuming labor, which they have to do for hours every week.” Women have to often travel to lug water for washing.

Environmentally conscious students tell Rosling, “People cannot have cars and washing machines.” Then he asks: “How many of you hand-wash your jeans and your bed sheets? And nobody raises their hand. Even the hard core in the green movement use [a] washing machine.”

He concludes: “Until they have the same energy consumption per-person, they shouldn’t give advice to others.”

‘Even the hard core in the green movement use [a] washing machine.’

Now you see where I’m going with this. If Pope Francis wants to push the First World to deindustrialize rather than suggesting that we tout and extend marvels like electricity and the rule of law that sustains open exchange, he should start washing his robes by hand.

He shouldn’t stop there. He and his entourage should stop flying in airplanes. Gracious, how many fossil fuels those use and pollutants they produce. Francis’s USA visit should have been a nonstarter if Francis really is worried about climate change. Be the change you wish to see, Pope Francis!

Also, the Vatican should stop using the Internet, and the pope should stop using Twitter, because across the globe Internet use requires massive amounts of fossil-fueled electricity. Let’s get back to fossil fuel-less carrier pigeons, or the Pony Express. It’s a good thing Catholic churches have so many candles, because they need to extinguish those electric lights. Or rip out the pews and install bicycles parishioners can use to generate sustainable electricity while singing the Gloria in excelsis.

Ease Doesn’t Mean Immorality

There’s more going on in the pope’s critique of modernity, and something we on the Right are susceptible to: Romanticizing the pre-industrial world as one that is inherently more moral because things were harder. In that respect, I suggest the pope and his team spend some time with Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas: “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.”

The difficulty of a thing is not in itself a trustworthy marker for how moral a thing is.

The point being that, while people don’t like to get things they haven’t earned (even people on welfare will insist they “deserve” those checks), grace is, again, the essence of the Gospel, besides being built into our natural world because it’s an intrinsic characteristic of that world’s creator. Grace means getting something you don’t deserve as an entirely free gift (not through forcing other people to hand it over, either). The difficulty of a thing is not in itself a trustworthy marker for how moral a thing is.

So, with apologies to Wendell Berry, plowing fields with mules is not inherently more virtuous than plowing them with a John Deere. Neither is returning to the days when people shoveled their own shit an improvement upon the days we can have machines do so for us—especially because poop lying around tends to breed disease, as Third-World denizens whose family and friends die from diseases sanitation would have prevented know very well. Now, I could choose to plow fields because I think that’s necessary to develop my own character, but it’s not someone else’s place to prescribe that for me. The Bible says we should work hard and honestly, but it doesn’t specify at what.

Incidentally, this explains why climate change-mongers act kind of like crazed cult members. They are “trying to save the world,” or essentially taking upon humans the job of the Messiah. Again, the central premise of the Gospel is that humans cannot redeem, cannot perfect anything through our individual efforts. The good news is that God can, has, and will. For us.

I could buy the argument that because people are fallen, flawed creatures, we need to face difficulties, because trials develop our character, while those of us who get a life of ease typically squander it. But for people to deliberately inflict hardship on others like denying them running water would be stealing a seat on God’s throne. How on earth are we admittedly flawed creatures going to have the wisdom to know who deserves how much and what kinds of hard work? I don’t want to be subject to the International Board of Washing Machine Distribution, and neither does anyone else. It’s no one’s place, not even the pope’s, to say who deserves to have his robes washed by machines and who deserves to be forced by necessity to wash her own.

Women Especially Benefit from Prosperity

This may be an especially pertinent topic for women, because we are perhaps the ones most liberated by economic progress. As Rosling notes, women are the ones who primarily benefit from washing machines, vacuums, grocery stores, and microwaves. We can enter the workplace more easily now because we can now do “women’s work” during nights and weekends instead of all day, every day. That’s available to almost all women in a First World society, not just those wealthy enough to have a collection of poorly paid servants, as it is in the Third World.

We can enter the workplace more easily now than before because we can now do ‘women’s work’ during nights and weekends instead of all day, every day.

I can buy our week’s worth of bread and milk with the money I earn working for someone else for a half hour, rather than spending each morning and evening milking the family cow and two half-days a week making bread. Now, I’m one of those weird people who still makes homemade bread and wants to someday own a milk cow, but the point is that those are now a choice for me and every woman instead of a necessity. (Also, my awesome oven and KitchenAid mean bread making takes maybe 20 minutes of active work. So it’s an easier choice to make.)

I’ve had a tug-of-war with myself over the benefits of economic progress, because I see people everywhere all the time using their glorious gift of free time, not to read books and learn English like Rosling and his mother, but to troll Facebook or get crunk. It’s the same sort of disgust I feel when I peruse through the glorious glut of good books at our library and, beyond the stacks, see people blowing their brains playing Flash games on the library computers.

Washing Machines Don’t Kill; People Do

But this is not technology’s fault. It’s our fault.

Government isn’t God, so government doesn’t get to decide who is a responsible washing-machine user and who isn’t.

Technology, like a gun or a shovel, is morally neutral; it’s how we use it that is moral or immoral. I can use a computer to send money to Christian refugees otherwise being beheaded and raped. Or I can use it to look up a former boyfriend and sneak around with him behind my husband’s back. I can use Facebook to conveniently arrange playdates or look up contact information for old friends in a city I’m about to visit. Or I can waste hours liking a pile of trivial updates.

Again, it’s not the pope’s responsibility to judge whether I am using responsibly the technology that I am blessed to access. The pope can’t make a blanket rule for whether people will read books or start dealing crack if a washing machine liberates them from laundry, because it’s different for every person. Neither does he have the professional capacity to judge either climate science or to become the benevolent world administrator.

Rosling is the one who must face the Judge of the World for how he used the time he was granted, thanks to the washing machine, the computer, and other advances. For him, “This is why I started my career as a professor—when my mother had time to read to me.” Sounds like a privilege wisely stewarded. Each of us has many privileges, and those privileges do confer upon them responsibilities not to squander our blessings. But government isn’t God, so government doesn’t get to decide who is a responsible washing-machine user and who isn’t.

The people Rosling studies want to join us First Worlders in deciding for themselves how they will use the time and bodies washing machines can liberate. It’s called self-government, and it’s good. Rosling and his mother’s wise use of their new technological gift provoked yet another virtue, called gratitude: “Thank you, industrialization. Thank you, steel mill. Thank you, power station. And thank you, chemical processing industry, that gave us time to read books!”