Saturday, June 20, 2015

Evoking the image of St. Francis: E. J. Dionne Jr. on Pope Francis's environmental encyclical


"Like his namesake saint, he believes in the transformative power of simplicity and compassion." (E. J. Dionne Jr.)

" 'We are not God,' the pope declares, and should not act as if we are 'usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.' Believers who disagree with the pope will have to grapple with his religious understanding and not simply dismiss his embrace of a thoroughly orthodox view that places the spiritual and the ethical ahead of the material."
-- E. J. Dionne Jr., in his Washington Post column
"The pope, the saint and the climate"

"We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it."
-- Pope Francis, in his environmental encyclical "Laudato Si,
on the care of our common home," as quoted by E.J.

by Ken

It was a strange question posed in the title of Janell Ross's "Fix"-blog post yesterday, "Will the pope sway Catholics on climate change? Not if evangelicals are any indication."

We're talking, of course, about the now-released papal encyclical "Laudato sì, on the care of our common home," which our Gaius Publius wrote about Tuesday ("Pope News: Humans Are Causing Climate Change. Have We Crossed a Tipping Point?"), drawing on the leaked draft of the encyclical. But why on earth would the doctrinal beliefs of Roman Catholics be affected by the views of evangelicals?

You'd think that the question only comes about because in so many social areas Catholics and evagelicals, who once had so little in common, have come so much closer as joint cogs in the Religious Right's mad race to the political Far Right -- an even starker coming together if by "Catholics" we understand the U.S. Catholic hierarchy. But Janell isn't thinking about evangelicals' response to the pope's encyclical. She has in mind their grappling with their own leadership.
[I]f the way evangelical Protestants have responded to similar guidance from their own leadership is any guide, the encyclical might not mean much at all.

The National Association of Evangelicals, which describes itself as an organization representing more than 455,000 local congregations, began pushing for climate change-conscious policies during George W. Bush's time in office. And the New York Times reported that The Christian Coalition, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, fought unsuccessfully for a climate change bill in Congress in both 2009 and 2010.

In 2008, 45 members of the Southern Baptist Convention, a network of more than 50,000 churches and missions, signed a letter describing their previous stance on environmental matters as, "too timid." And, that same year the entire convention approved a resolution declaring “it is prudent to address global climate change." However, it later also emphasized the uncertainty of scientific evidence on the cause of global warming.
Nevertheless, interesting as it is to be reminded that once upon a time evangelical leaders took environmental issues seriously, what possible connection could there be between evangelicals' current attitudes and Catholics' attitude toward the word of the pope? Evangelicals can believe any damn thing they want, whereas Catholics don't have any choice, right? Isn't that what they always tell us? They have to obey the teachings of their church, don't they?

Well, it turns out, only if they agree with him. His encyclical on the environment has the shitheadiest elements of American Catholicism in a tizzy. I love Ian Welsh's first response, in an itsy-bitsy post called "Burn In Hell?":
I am amused how many American conservative Catholics are now ignoring the official teachings of the church on the environment.

It is, I suppose, lucky for them that official teachings now define hell as “the absence of God’s love.”

But it’s good to know that they actually do believe that one can pick and choose teachings.  Given that this is the case, can we now just ignore them every time they talk about abortion or birth control?
A commenter wrote: "Today, for the first time, I ran across the term Cafeteria Catholicism. Apt, that."

But of course we already knew this -- that American Catholic muckety-mucks get to pick and choose their doctrinal loyalties. Remember when the sainted Pope John Paul II made it clear that the Church's reverence for life included not just opposition to birth control but opposition to the death penalty? It turned out that if you were a lying-scumbag Catholic muckety-muck, you could just ignore the old coot, reserving your doctrinal fealty to areas that suited your deeply ingrained bigotries and psychoses. And any other area in which a modern pope took issue with the dirty underside of modern capitalism -- fuck him! Let him mind his own beeswax. God gave us this world to despoil, and we still haven't finished the job!

The environmental encyclical is going to be a lot harder for the Catholic shitheads to ignore. But a lot of Catholics, GP suggested Tuesday, are ready for the pope's message.
The welcoming part of the world is, I think, the larger part by far, and the reaction to this encyclical will demonstrate that. The denier and delayer side will offer much fire from a very small number of flame-throwers.

Most of the rest of the world, however, will cheer his leadership. I'll have more to say about the place and benefit of actual leadership in fighting climate change. Bottom line: It's huge and the people are hungry for it.

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square Wednesday

Which brings me back to E. J. Dionne Jr.'s beautiful column.
The pope says flatly that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” that “things are now reaching a breaking point” and that greenhouse gases are “released mainly as a result of human activity.” This can mean only that humanity “is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption.”

There is no ambiguity in what the pope is saying, which is why the critics will descend upon him. Even before Thursday’s formal release of the document (and Monday’s leaked draft), they accused him of meddling in political and scientific questions that are beyond his purview.

This critique is coming especially from conservatives who have welcomed the intervention of the Catholic Church on some political issues but not others, and particularly not this one. Yet progressives and conservatives alike should attend to what motivates Pope Francis here — not the usual left-right politics but a theological concern for our obligation to care for our “common home,” a skepticism of a “throwaway culture,” and an insistence that a belief in God means that human beings cannot put themselves at the center of the universe.
In fact, the first point E.J. makes is about Pope Francis's framing, beginning with a homage to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi:
He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable is the bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
"It's worth focusing first," E.J. writes, "on the pope's tribute to the holy man who revered animals and all of nature."
St. Francis’s worldview, the pope insisted, should not be “written off as naive romanticism.” His paean to the saint placed his declaration in a spiritual context even if its content was uncompromising.
"All of the pope’s trademark qualms about modern capitalism and his rejection of 'a magical conception of the market' are sounded here," E.J. writes.
[A]nd there is a biting comment aimed at those who use the word “freedom” to offer blanket defenses of a system that leaves many behind: “To claim economic freedom,” he writes, “while real conditions bar many people from real access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.”
E.J. has a ready answer for "any who claim that Francis is ignoring the Catholic past and inventing radical new doctrines."
[They] will have to reckon with the care he takes in paying homage to his predecessors, particularly Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. He cites them over and over on the limits of markets and the urgency of environmental stewardship. “Laudato Si (Praised Be)” is thus thoroughly consistent with more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching, and if it breaks new ground, it does so within the context of a long tradition — going back to St. Francis himself.
"Pope Francis poses a challenge to those of us in the wealthy nations," E.J. writes, "and he speaks specifically about how 'opinion makers, communications media and centres of power are far removed from the poor.' "
Ouch! He demands payment of an “ecological debt” between “north and south.” Again and again, he returns to the twin ideas that the world’s poor face the largest threat from climate change and that the world’s rich have a special obligation to deal with it. The pope who immersed himself in the most marginalized neighborhoods of Buenos Aires has not forgotten where he came from.
I suspect that this argument from economic predation will drive the conservative Catholics especially crazy. And there's no question that the theme is important to this pope. But E.J. insists that there's more than "a social agenda" behind Francis "making himself the Green Pope."
Like his namesake saint, he believes in the transformative power of simplicity and compassion. “We must,” he writes, “regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.” This is precisely where the personal and the political must meet.

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