The Pope and the Planet: waiting for Francis - RSA

Blog: The Pope and the planet - waiting for Francis


  • Picture of Ian Christie
    Ian Christie
    Research Fellow and Coordinator, University of Surrey
  • Climate change
  • Spirituality

No major public event now takes place without a preceding orgy of speculation, pre-emptive judgement and social media frenzies. Typically, this builds up to the leaking of a key text just before publication date. The Pope’s Encyclical on the environment has been subject to just such a process, including the leak of a draft, and even the creation of a spoof film trailer on the Internet, showing Francis I preparing to save the world.

However, no amount of pre-publication hype and speculation can diminish the significance of the Encyclical, due to appear tomorrow. A massively popular religious leader is intervening in what is the most complex and momentous political and ethical challenge of the age - climate disruption forced by human action, and the wider risks of ecological breakdown through unsustainable industrial development and exploitation of the Earth’s resources.

The pre-emptive reception of the Papal intervention has followed a predictable pattern. Those concerned and convinced about the need for urgent action on climate change have welcomed Francis’s move; those who claim climate change is unreal or unimportant have condemned his entry into the field. But the Papal intervention poses complex challenges to both camps, and for Governments and businesses uneasily positioned between them.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) campaigning for urgent action on climate change and environmental threats have eagerly anticipated the Encyclical. The Pope, charismatic and popular, brings great moral authority to their cause. The enthusiasm also reflects a growing interest over recent years from secular environmental CSOs in the capacity of religious organisations to mobilise their congregations for more sustainable living and for campaigning. The recent upsurge in Christian support for dis-investment from fossil fuel interests is a case in point. The secular CSO world is faced with indifference, nervous caution or hostility to Green concerns from government, business and many citizens. So it has been eager, verging on desperate, for models of change, civic engagement and ethical commitment that can win ground for environmental values. In the success of religious institutions as builders of community, social capital and values-based campaigns, many secular CSO advocates see a neglected source of crucial capabilities and allies for environmental campaigns. The discovery that religion is not fading away, and the fact that its adherents account for the great majority of people on Earth, have not been lost on secular environmentalists in recent years.

That said, there are difficult challenges in building partnerships between secular and religious CSOs. The ethical framing of the climate challenge that Francis will offer is not only one that highlights care for the Earth and the poor. It also encompasses ideas and values that are often unwelcome and divisive for secular bodies: sin; sacrifice; the priority of concern for the poor; the condemnation of abortion; the rigid doctrine on birth control in the Catholic world. The Pope also leads an organisation deeply divided and shamed by its troubles over the standing of women and gay people, and by child abuse scandals; and so on and on. The Pope is popular but his Church is widely mistrusted and disliked in the secular world. The response to the Encyclical at the Catholic grassroots worldwide will also reveal difficulties with the widespread secular assumption that religious leaders can readily ‘mobilise’ their flocks. Catholics, like believers in any faith, pick and choose from top-down teachings and are heavily influenced by local norms and pressures. The Encyclical will expose Catholic divisions as well as influence many believers to look afresh at environmental issues.

For Governments and major businesses, most of which are at least nominally signed up to coherent and serious action on climate change and environmental protection, the Encyclical will be problematic. The Pope’s intervention will highlight unwelcome truths about climate and ecological challenges. These are, at root, challenges about ethics and our fundamental values. They demand radical rethinking of ideas about consumption and economic purpose. For Governments and businesses, the climate crisis and wider ecological disruption need to be made compatible with established priorities and values. Hence the insistence that we can only act on environmental care in ways that don’t undermine economic growth and competitiveness; and that climate change can be tackled by technological innovation, the market supplying solutions that will not mean affluent lifestyles have to be up for negotiation. The Pope - like many CSOs - will challenge this narrative. He will insist on the inescapability of moral issues at the heart of the climate question. The poor have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions, but stand to be hit first and worst by climate disruption; and the affluent, who have grown rich from our use of fossil fuels, evade the ethical challenges, and at worst simply refuse to acknowledge the problem at all. We fear having to re-evaluate our worldviews and lifestyles for the sake of the common good of people, creatures and places remote in time and space from us. The Pope will be listened to by many Governments and corporations with uneasy politeness at best.

The run-up to the Encyclical has seen an orgy of Pope-bashing among the climate change ‘denialist’ movement, especially in the USA. For those who cannot admit the reality of climate change or contemplate its policy implications for capitalism and fossil fuel interests, the Papal intervention is a disaster. Francis has been accused of being ‘out of line’, sadly misled by his advisors, or of being a Marxisant Green revolutionary out to undermine Catholicism and Christianity. So far, so predictable, although the idea that the Curia contains a cadre of Green Marxists who have brainwashed the Pope is an exotic line to take even by the standards of US climate conspiracy theorists.

The denialist world is bound to be deeply troubled by the Encyclical, and its pre-emptive strikes indicate that it is a movement close to the end of its tether. Many denialists have based their rejection of climate science and policy on religious grounds as well as on political and business ones. The fact that the Pope is weighing in to support secular environmentalism, indeed to claim its diagnosis and vision for the Catholic church and ground it in the Christian faith and in commitment to stewardship of God’s Creation, and that this is backed by many other Christian communities worldwide, is a fundamental challenge to Christian denialists. Either they acknowledge Papal and other Christian leadership or they have to denounce it. If the latter, they face extreme cognitive dissonance. The Pope has to be condemned and his grasp of Christian doctrine and mission dismissed, just as climate scientists have to be dismissed as authorities on climate. So questions of ultimate authority in assessing ethical and truth claims about climate and environment will be posed to denialists in very sharp form. What is decisive: God, science, the state, the market?

Rejecting the Pope’s moral and theological standing and all the arguments set out in the Encyclical may be a psychological, spiritual and political step too far for many denialists. For those denialists of any faith and none who insist on bringing the Pope into a narrative of climate conspiracy, the risk of terminal ridicule and marginalisation is high. The Encyclical could see the reduction to absurdity of a denialist culture that is already fast losing ground. The Pope can be seen as the latest and perhaps greatest example of members of global elites breaking ranks with fossil-fuelled business as usual. We see this in the increasingly radical language of a small but significant group of corporate leaders; with a growing number of institutions dis-investing from coal and oil; with networks of city leaders taking stronger action on climate policy than their national governments; and with the serious moves now afoot in China to shift away from fossil dependence. The Pope’s intervention will lend weight to corporate and political leaders willing to push for radical action on climate and environment, and will help create a sense of urgency and possibility for the international talks on global climate deals this year.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the Gospels tell of Christ remarking that He comes not to bring peace, but a sword. That is to say, His preaching of love and justice will provoke many to resentment and violent rejection of both message and messenger. This will be true of the Encyclical. The Pope will win many supporters for his Franciscan vision and ethic; he will also expose deep divisions in the Catholic church and across Christianity and other faiths. He will stir up more debate on the fundamental challenges to values that are posed by ecological crisis and climate change. The Encyclical is big news, and will make the right kind of trouble for us all.

This article was first published on Theos.

Ian Christie is a Fellow of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey.


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