Pope Francis on Thursday called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, as his much-awaited papal encyclical blended a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.
The vision that Francis outlined in the 184-page encyclical is sweeping in ambition and scope: He described a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, for which he blamed apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness. The most vulnerable victims are the world’s poorest people, he declared, who are being dislocated and disregarded.
It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this encyclical will have on world affairs. The Pope, of course, is not the first public figure to speak out on climate, and it takes more than words to change the world.
But a papal encyclical is not a speech or a white paper, it is the official expression of an institution whose history stretches back two millennia and whose constitutions live on every continent and speak a multitude of tongues. It is thus transnational in scope in a way that perhaps no other document is. And it is a teaching document (emphasis mine):
Francis has made clear that he hopes the encyclical will influence energy and economic policy and stir a global movement. He calls on ordinary people to pressure politicians for change. Bishops and priests around the world are expected to lead discussions on the encyclical in services on Sunday. But Francis is also reaching for a wider audience when in the first pages of the document he asks “to address every person living on this planet.”
Will that happen? And not just on this Sunday, but on many Sundays after, Saturdays too, and Wednesday evenings.
In part we can measure the impact of Laudato Si (Praise Be to You) by the opposition it provokes.
Yet Francis has also been sharply criticized by those who question or deny the established science of human-caused climate change and also by some conservative Roman Catholics, who have interpreted the document as an attack on capitalism and as unwanted political meddling at a moment when climate change is high on the global agenda.
His most stinging rebuke is a broad economic and political critique of profit-seeking and the undue influence of technology on society. He praised the progress achieved by economic growth and technology, singling out achievements in medicine, science and engineering. But, he added, “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”
Central to Francis’ theme is the linkage between the poor and the fragility of the planet. He rejects the belief that technology and “current economics” will solve environmental problems or “that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.” He cites finance as having a distorting influence on politics and calls for government action, international regulation and a spiritual and cultural awakening to “recover depth in life.”
But he did, as one would expect, maintain traditional Catholic views on abortion:
Many conservatives will be pleased, however, because Francis also included a strong criticism of abortion while also belittling the argument that population control represented a solution to limited resources and poverty. However, he sharply criticized carbon credits — the financial instruments now central to the European Union’s current climate change policy — as a tool that “may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”
We shall see.
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Another article in the Times asks: “…did the pope get the science right?” He has, sorta:
The short answer from climate and environmental scientists is that he did, at least to the degree possible in a religious document meant for a broad audience. If anything, they say, he may have bent over backward to offer a cautious interpretation of the scientific facts.
For example, a substantial body of published science says that human emissions have caused all the global warming that has occurred over the past century. Yet in his letter, Francis does not go quite that far, citing volcanoes, the sun and other factors that can influence the climate before he concludes that “most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases” released mainly by human activity.
When the pope does transition in his encyclical from fact to judgment, though, his language is less measured.
“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” Francis declared. “In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”