The wave of media attention that initially greeted Pope Francis’ new encyclical was submerged almost immediately by last week’s news cycle, moving from the Charleston shootings to the free trade vote to the Obamacare victory to the legalization of same-sex marriage. But the real test is: what impact will Francis’ document have long term?
Few actions by any pope have received as much public attention (from media, candidates, office holders, scholars, and ordinary readers) as Pope Francis’ new ecology encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home.” Naturally, some embrace it, some dismiss it, some rationalize their opposition, others debate its pros and cons. But in the eyes of history, these reactions matter less than the answer to the most basic question: “Will it make any difference?”
My quick response, after merely scanning the document and its commentators, is “Yes, this document could indeed turn out to be the game changer that alters the course of public policy, business practice, and personal behavior for years to come.” I offer 10 reasons.
1. A Compelling Vision in which “Everything is Connected.” Many commentators wrongly described the encyclical’s theme as “climate change.” In fact Francis presents climate change as just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. He roots the problem of climate change in runaway carbon emissions, which are generated by our unsustainable reliance on fuels needed to power a runaway capitalist system that treats self-interest and greed as our most important social virtues. This system despoils the global environment while generating not only intolerable levels of pollution but also intolerable levels of inequality. The result, he says will be a progressive degrading of earth’s ecological systems which, while caused by the world’s wealthy, will disproportionately affect the world’s poor. Violent resistance (what Francis says is already "World War III") will continue to block the road to peace. The solution to this massively dysfunctional global system is nothing less than a planetary ethical revolution that dethrones runaway capitalism as we know it and replaces it with a system that reflects more authentically humane values.
In short, rather than focusing on science or environmentalism or economics or public policy or social justice or religion--Pope Francis has integrated them all into one big coherent vision. No wonder he calls it “integral ecology”: it is not just the “big picture,” it is the biggest picture of all.
2. Perfect Timing, Part 1. Elected in March 2013, Francis has arrived in the world stage at the very moment of history when our ecological challenges are approaching the crisis point. The signs of environmental decline are everywhere. The scientific consensus makes a compelling case for action, and the resistance to economic inequality is cresting. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people--especially the poor--sense the urgent need for change and demonstrate their unwillingness to passively accept the words of those defending the status quo. It is at this moment that the papacy--one of the planet’s few truly global offices--is occupied by a certified champion of the poor from a southern hemisphere country, trained in chemistry, whose warm simplicity has made him the most popular man in the world and given his voice a public power without rival. At the very moment any revolution would need a moral authority to believe in, Francis is the man of the hour.
3. Perfect Timing, Part 2. In the next six months at least four major events will provide Francis high-profile opportunities to promote his message. In September he will visit the U.S., and will become the first pope ever to address a joint session of Congress, where his audience will include enough climate change deniers, unfettered free market apologists, and 1% millionaires to sink Noah’s Ark. They will have no choice but to listen, and they will also know that millions of American viewers are also hearing this stunningly popular man speak truth to power. They may not like what they hear, but they will dismiss his message at their own peril.
The pope will also address the General Assembly of the United Nations, where his message will have an international (even global) audience. And since the U.N. has already taken the lead on environmental matters, Francis will be linking his moral authority and the global reach of his Church (2/3 all Catholics live south of the equator) with the political influence of another international organization.
December will bring two more events. December marks the 50th anniversary of the closing session of Vatican Council II, which secured the support of the world’s 2000 Catholic bishops for much of the vision that Francis has embraced. And the U.N.’s own summit conference on climate change will be held in Paris, where delegates pushing for radical governmental reforms and regulations will find ample ammunition in Francis’ vision.
|Francis of Assisi, Patron of the Environment|
4. Linking Faith and Science. Since Galileo, faith and science have too often seemed at odds, going their separate ways and even forming separate and conflicting worldviews. (The Catholic Church has not always been the worst of offender: witness how fundamentalist Christians have dug in their heels by proposing “creationism” to deny evolution.) The result has been a scientific community that often shies away from ethical categories to avoid unscientific intrusions. But Vatican II’s vision called for the reconciliation of science’s power with the wisdom needed to guide it toward the common good. And now Francis has linked the wisdom of Catholic social teaching to the powerful scientific consensus of our day--and the scientific community is acknowledging that this can give their concerns both a popular and a political impact they cannot achieve on their own. This historic breakthrough might even restore the ancient notion that faith and reason are only truly relevant if they are together.
5. Preaching Beyond the Choir. Like John XXIII before him, Francis addresses not just Catholics, but “every person living on this planet.” He is speaking on issues that concern us all, and he is evoking facts and values that are relevant to us all. He seems perfectly aware that his papal office allows him to command worldwide attention, and moreover he seems perfectly ready to use the office to do just that. Stop and think: what other public official can command such attention?
NEXT: 5 More Reasons
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015