What the Pope's climate change announcement tells us about the church

Many feel Francis has gone beyond his remit in taking a radical political stance

June 19, 2015
Enviromentalists march in support of Pope Francis. © Bullit Marquez/AP/Press Association Images
Enviromentalists march in support of Pope Francis. © Bullit Marquez/AP/Press Association Images

Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment—a formal church document, released yesterday, in which he calls for action on climate change and pollution—has been greeted with enthusiasm by an impressive array of the “people of good will” to whom he addresses it.

But in the long run, the reception of the Pope’s pronouncements may tell us more about the state of the Catholic Church and of the papacy than about how to solve the degradation of the planet.

The document has been praised by the many secular institutions that blame the actions of humans for climate change. Representatives of the United Nations (UN) have enthusiastically endorsed it, as has Greenpeace—institutions that have no brief for Christianity, let alone Catholicism. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday noted that the encyclical expressed "a very solid scientific consensus" showing that most global warming in recent decades is "mainly a result of human activity."

At the same time, though, there is a subterranean theme within the encyclical’s 184 pages that has prompted strong reactions inside the Catholic Church. It has been harshly criticised by some leading Catholics who believe that it goes beyond the papal remit by expressing uncompromising views on politics and economics.

Francis is not just reminding the world that we have a moral obligation to preserve the planet. Nor is he simply backing those scientists who blame the usual culprits, mainly fossil fuels. He is drawing severe criticism from within his Church for expressing opinions which place him squarely on the radical left.

The issue of the environment as seen by the Pope Francis is not a matter of purely scientific, or indeed theological, debate: it involves, economic and political views on how the world’s poor can be brought out of poverty while protecting the environment. “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain,” he writes. “As a result, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of the deified market, which become the only rule.”

Some of his economic prescriptions are highly specific. For example: "Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery.”

Nobody should be surprised that Francis sees himself as the leading champion of the poor in the world: by choosing the name of the medieval saint of poverty, St Francis, he proclaimed that he would spend his pontificate pleading on their behalf.

But the Argentine Pope, the first pope in history from Latin America, has been shaped by the depressing, at times vicious, politics of his country and region.

While dissociating himself at certain points from Peronism—the Argentine political philosophy named for former president Juane Peron—as he once did from the Marxist extremes of Liberation Theology—the notion that the basis of sin is to be found in the social and economic structures of capitalism—he nevertheless identifies the free enterprise West with the plight of the poverty stricken South. Francis has grown up in a country that has routinely resisted inward investment from the United States, and cast British trading interests as “piratical.”

Pope Francis emphatically does not buy the argument that poverty can be alleviated by the “trickle down” effects of wealth creation. He is deaf to arguments that the global economy has brought a billion people out of poverty. He is convinced, in short, that the best and only way to expel poverty is fairer distribution of the world’s goods.

The encyclical frequently castigates unbridled capitalism as the root cause of environmental degradation, and hence the root cause of poverty. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” he says. "Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?"

Hence senior, mainly lay, conservative figures in the Catholic Church are respectfully, but emphatically, complaining of “blind spots” in the encyclical.The director of the Catholic think tank, the Acton Institute, said yesterday, “When you read through the text, you find the free market, and finance in particular, is identified more or less as responsible for many environmental problems...In many respects, it’s a caricature of market economies." The economist Philip Booth of the Institute of Economic Affairs, an expert in Catholic social teaching, went on Newsnight to reject the pessimism of the encyclical, while criticising the Pope’s views on practical economic measures. He points out that the Pope is wrong to criticise energy subsidies, for example. Mathew Schmitz, the deputy editor of America’s influential conservative Catholic weekly, First Things, has criticized the encyclical not only for its unwarranted pessimism, but its attacks on the modern.

There was a time when papal encyclicals were treated as virtual pronouncements of papal infallibility. There are still a small minority of Catholics who cite Pope Paul VI’s 1968 document Humanae Vitae—which outlawed artificial birth control—as the word of God. But the Church has become increasingly fragmented since the death of John Paul II, not only between liberals and conservatives, but even within those opposing groups. Some American conservatives are now criticising the Pope’s utterances on a daily basis.

Nor are all liberals necessarily enthused by Francis's championing of the environmentalists. A typical reaction from one well known Catholic liberal blogger in the United States, Gerald Slevin, is that the encyclical is evidence of the Pope trying to “change the subject.” That subject, he reminds his readers today, are the clerical paedophile abuse scandals which have dogged the church.

Other liberal Catholics raise that great elephant in the Catholic room: the church's ban on artificial contraception. At a London press conference to launch the encyclical yesterday a journalist asked Cardinal Archbishop Nichols whether the encyclical addressed the problem of birth control as part of the environmental problem. The Cardinal merely responded that the Pope insisted that the rich should not tell the poor how many children they should have.

There can be no doubt that Pope Francis has provided the environmental lobbies with a powerful moral backing in advance of the UN’s meeting on global warming due to be held in Paris this December. And you don’t have to be a Catholic to accept that protecting the integrity of the planet is a moral issue.

The world’s 1.2 billion Catholics may take comfort from the enthusiastic reception of the Pope’s words by secular institutions. But it is significant that those who are scrutinising the fine print of this document appear in the main to be members of the Catholic laity. If nothing else the situation indicates a rebalancing of the relationship between the Catholic clergy and the laity, a new sense of maturity on the part of Catholics as a whole, in reaction to sombre and painful lessons of the Church’s recent past.