Is Pope Francis channelling Greta Thunberg in his latest message on climate change?

October will be a busy month for Pope Francis and his critics. A few days ago five cardinals released an exchange of views on several sensitive topics. His responses were savaged in conservative Catholic circles. This week he opened a highly anticipated “Synod on Synodality” in Rome to discuss future directions for the Church. And he has also released a controversial document on climate change, Laudate Deum.

There is no doubt about where he stands.  “The world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point,” he writes.

This catastrophizing was not received well in some circles. Writing in First Things, an American Catholic journal, Francis X. Maier says that Laudate Deum “could have been drafted by any intelligent non-believer working for a secular NGO”.

He did a word search to assess whether the Pope is Catholic and discovered that “the word ‘Jesus’ appears three times; ‘God,’ 11 times; ‘Church,’ once; ‘Catholic,’ twice; ‘biblical,’ once; ‘Bible,’ once; and ‘Christian,’ once”.

This thorough theological critique fails to take into account the fact that Laudate Deum is a kind of update to Francis’s 2015 document, Laudato Sì, which is much longer and more theological and mentions “God” 178 times and “Christian” 35 times.

In any case Laudate Deum is addressed to “all people of good will”, not just Catholics. As an “apostolic exhortation”, it is meant to inspire and challenge, not to set out dogmatic propositions. Word clouds are a poor way to assess the orthodoxy of Church documents.  One document from the Second Vatican Council, Gravissimum Educationis, doesn’t mention the words “Bible” or “biblical” at all.

Without getting bogged in the dogmatic authority of apostolic exhortations, it is clear that they are not infallible decrees. Catholics don’t have to agree with all the details; they simply should treat them with respect and be guided by the underlying principles.

What does Francis propose in Laudate Deum?

Admittedly, its most striking feature is the Pope’s disdain for climate change sceptics. He relies heavily on data and analysis from the International Panel on Climate Change. Here are some of his assertions:

  • “It is no longer possible to doubt the human – ‘anthropic’ – origin of climate change.”
  • “The overwhelming majority of scientists specializing in the climate support this correlation, and only a very small percentage of them seek to deny the evidence.”
  • “In recent years, some have chosen to deride these facts. They bring up allegedly solid scientific data, like the fact that the planet has always had, and will have, periods of cooling and warming.”
  • “The change in average surface temperatures cannot be explained except as the result of the increase of greenhouse gases.”

However, the IPCC is not a Vatican department and a Catholic who dissents from its consensus is not a heretic. The Pope will not be adding climate sceptics like Bjørn Lomborg  or Michael Shellenberger to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.  

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In any case, these soundbites are a bit misleading. Most of Laudate Deum is not about channeling Greta Thunberg, but about challenging readers to form their opinions about climate change in a Christian way. The Pope has several themes.

What about the peripheries?  “Going to the peripheries”, to the distant, lost and forgotten of the world, is a well-worn slogan of Francis’s pontificate. He doesn’t use the phrase here, but it imbues the whole document. He feels deeply that people in the developing world are suffering as a result of the Global North’s industrial activity. It should be impossible for people of good will, especially Catholics, to ignore this. Americans, Canadians or Australians have to feel a responsibility for other nations.

This is not just Francis’s pet theory. The Catholic bishops of Africa have been even more strident. The Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Fridolin Besungu Ambongo, wrote last year:

Climate change is a moral outrage. It is a tragic and striking example of structural sin. facilitated by callous indifference and selfish greed. The climate crisis is leading to the destruction of our planet, the devastation of the lives of the poor, and the detriment of future generations. We, Church leaders and civil society organizations in Africa and beyond, demand world leaders, business leaders and decision makers … heed to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth.

Praising multilateralism. Pope Francis appears to be as sceptical of the United Nations as any American Republican. “It is not helpful to confuse multilateralism with a world authority concentrated in one person or in an elite with excessive power,” he writes. What he wants is not more bureaucracy, but more effective institutions. He seems to be calling for a spirit of secular synodality in which all nations are heard, not just the powerful and well-connected.

As an example of the kind of bottom-up diplomacy he admires, he cites the Ottawa Process which culminated in an international ban on anti-personnel landmines. It was launched by several NGOs, promoted by the Canadian government, and ratified by the international community. (With the exception of Russia and the United States, amongst others, unfortunately.)

Condemning the “technocratic paradigm”. For Francis, the fundamental cause of the climate crisis is spiritual, the arrogant belief that the goods of our planet exist to be exploited. “The greater problem [of the climate crisis] is the ideology underlying an obsession: to increase human power beyond anything imaginable, before which nonhuman reality is a mere resource at its disposal. Everything that exists ceases to be a gift for which we should be thankful, esteem and cherish, and instead becomes a slave, prey to any whim of the human mind and its capacities.” We are part of nature, not its master. In this he is echoing all the recent Popes. 

This is true not only in environmental issues. Although he does not touch upon this in Laudate Deum, the technocratic paradigm is at work in debates over transgender issues, abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy – all of bioethics, in fact.

Christian responsibility for creation. Contrary to what word cloud theologians might think, Laudate Deum is imbued with the practical, down-to-earth Catholic spirituality which is so characteristic of Francis.

First, he emphasises Christian responsibility for one another. “No man is an island”, the famous words of the English poet and Anglican priest John Donne, have become a cliché. But they sum up the Pope’s eschatological vision of climate change. In one of his earlier documents, Fratelli Tutti, he deployed the image of the Good Samaritan to urge his readers to care for their neighbour. Everything connects – a small sinking micro-nation in the South Pacific should touch hearts in Peoria.

Second, he reminds readers that we are all responsible for the planet: “The Judaeo-Christian vision of the cosmos defends the unique and central value of the human being amid the marvellous concert of all God’s creatures.” And, quoting his previous document, Laudato Sì, Francis writes: “If ‘the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely… there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face’. The world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it?”

Third, he stresses that our response to climate change, like all other human activities, is a deeply ethical issue. Drawing attention to uncomfortable issues like immigration, waste, unemployment, racism, abortion, or human trafficking is a constant theme in his writing. He knows that his readers would prefer to dismiss them as someone else’s business. They’re not.

*****

Laudate Deum is sure to upset, even enrage, some readers. Americans in particular will not appreciate a Parthian shot in the penultimate paragraph, reminding them that they emit twice as much greenhouse gases as China per capita, and seven times more than the average of the poorest countries.

Critics will grumble that the Pope has no business lecturing us about climate change; that he should stick to religious themes; that he’s a scientific ignoramus. But that misses the point. His Catholic flock are not obliged to agree with his analysis of the causes of global warming. But they do have a responsibility to care for those who are affected, in whatever way they think best. 


Michael Cook is editor of Mercator.

Image credits: Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash  


 

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