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Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote that “The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul.” Pope Francis, in a sense, would agree. In March, for example, he said in a homily that “the style of the good God is not to produce a spectacle: God acts in humility, in silence, in the little things.” Of course, the papacy is not a little thing, and so much of a pope’s activity inadvertently can become “spectacle.” Yet this pontificate has been anything but quiet.
From the pope riding in a Kia to colorful off-the-cuff remarks in interviews, Francis seems to relish the spotlight. Now the pope has written Laudato Si, an encyclical about “doing a work,” albeit a work to save this world. After some time to consider Laudato Si, and to observe some responses to the document, we can better appreciate its significance for the Church going forward.
Francis once again has become the media’s darling. In Laudato Si, the pope actually criticizes the media, but specifically for producing an “information overload” that results in the mere “accumulation of data.” When it comes to matters of the Faith, however, one need not sift through an avalanche of information to find the clear voice of the Church. What is most dangerous about the media is that it has no interest in distinguishing humble, quiet truths from the loud and attractive illusions of truth that rise above them. It falls to the Church, its leaders, and the faithful to make those distinctions.
With his populist passion, Francis exhorts Christians to care for the environment because it was created by our common Father. This is, of course, a good goal and in its best light it is a valiant appeal against atheism and agnosticism. Unfortunately, Laudato Si’s primary objective is to toss the Church’s moral authority into the collection basket of the climate change movement. In total service of that core goal, Francis misses many opportunities to dig into details and offer the clear advice and wisdom of a pastor.
Consider, for example, Francis’s use the term “consumerism.” Francis mentions “consumerist” or “consumerism” fifteen times. A review of all fifteen references would suggest that there is now a special place in Hell for “consumerists”—eternity in a frozen lake (Dante’s Ninth Circle) seems appropriate given their alleged responsibility for global warming. Francis laments that young generations “have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits.” He slams “a consumerist lifestyle” that is incapable of being “maintained.” He assails “compulsive” and “extreme consumerism” as manifested “in an effort to sell” products and a “whirlwind of needless buying and spending.”
But what would the Holy Father propose that we do instead, stop selling anything but food staples? It means little to criticize a “consumer” when in this fallen world we all must necessarily consume limited resources—fuel, food, air, water—in order to survive. We must distinguish between good consumers and bad consumers. As Christians, we should indeed wonder how we can achieve a spiritual detachment that eschews the goods of this world for riches in the next. Such detachment would not call for a Puritanical lifestyle or require a vow of poverty. Yet Francis does not explain what consumerism is from a Christian perspective, let alone how Christians can avoid it. His strident remarks, left without much definition or content, suggest that Francis is ceding such content to whatever consumption guidelines the climate change movement has in mind. Even if some overlap exists between a good Christian consumer and environmentalists’ fully-regulated consumer, one would expect the pope to point out the differences between the two ideals.
Most dishearteningly, Francis misses an opportunity to caution readers about science’s role today in diminishing the influence of moral politics. He writes a short section on “Religions in Dialogue with Science” in which he argues that science will be “powerless” to solve man’s problems if “humanity loses its compass.” The suggestion here — indeed, throughout the encyclical — is that science should accept the support of moral institutions like the Church because these institutions can snap people out of their “indifference” to the destruction science has perceived to be all around us. This an overarching goal of the encyclical—to assume that science has correctly inquired into the existence and cause of climate change and to say that the Church is here to help put such determinations of science into action. This ignores the dangerous way in which “science” has been wielded by climate change alarmists as a freestanding authority and not as a mode of inquiry. It seems to me that Francis’s approach here reverses the role of the Church, offering it as an instrument to mobilize support for indeterminate science.
It is likewise surprising that Francis criticizes an “omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power” in an encyclical that lends support to climate change alarmism. Does the pope not realize that it is precisely the “cult of unlimited human power” that drives the climate change movement? Climate change alarmists not only enlist science to support vast changes in political and economic structures, but they believe such changes will effect a profound and lasting change on humanity—they believe, in the spirit of modernity’s faith in “rational control” and its neglect of Christ, that they are capable of “saving the world” if only they can create the right multinational government or agree to the perfect carbon emissions treaty.
The pope is sensitive to the downside of “technocracy” in the context of how finance can be used to oppress the poor. But technocracy and the false idol of science also can be used to oppress the faithful, rich and poor. That false idol (often in the form of “social” science) asphyxiates our politics, dominating it with supposed scientific “truths” that are not much more than amoral illusions of truth—empirical stabs at what is that are taken as gospel to fuel plans for political control. In a technocratic bureaucracy, we cannot persuade with talk of “right” and “wrong,” but with statistics enlisted to suit the very same “utilitarian mindset” that Francis blasts in Laudato Si. Technocracy is a way to exclude religion from the public square. It is stunning that, given the climate change topic, Francis does not address the troubling links between climate change science and the evils of technocratic social science.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in Principles of Catholic Theology that
A Christianity that believes it has no other function than to be completely in tune with the spirit of the times has nothing to say and no meaning to offer. It can abdicate without more ado. Those who live vigilantly in the world of today, who recognize … the self-destruction of technology by the destruction of the environment … such people do not look to Christianity for approbation but for the prophetic salt that burns, consumes, accuses, and changes.
Benedict’s observation reminds us that the media frenzy surrounding Laudato Si is not really the sign of those who desire the “prophetic salt” of the Gospel. It, instead, seems more like a celebration that the Church is in tune with the spirit of the times (as embodied by the climate change movement). Is that so awful for a Church which, Lord knows, is in need of some good P.R.? Benedict suggests that those who “look to Christianity” for salvation do not want a pat on the back. Perhaps they are suffering, sick or out of a job — part of the “periphery,” as Francis calls it — but they hope that their suffering has meaning and they hope in something greater than a job or good health. They hope for an eternal happiness that calls, with God’s grace, for a changed soul to become new in Christ. Under Benedict’s formulation, when we see people looking to the Church only for “approbation,” they do so to confirm that they do not have to change. Eventually, such people will avoid consulting even the pretense of the Church’s moral authority because such a Church becomes an unnecessary “yes man,” another victim of that throwaway culture Francis talks about.
One wonders if Cardinal Newman refers to a Roman Catholic Church unchanged by Laudato Si when he wrote:
She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin…
Newman, of course, does not mean that the Church should want vast pollution and world starvation but that the soul perseveres despite the physical challenges of the body—the health of the soul is paramount. We should prefer this order of things. Otherwise, the inevitable physical suffering in this life would turn us into hopeless madmen. That “heaven and earth shall pass away” but the Word shall not is one of the reasons Christianity has been so appealing to those in the “periphery.”
I cannot help but mention Pope Benedict XVI again, mostly because I wonder what he is thinking about all of this while in retreat away from the public eye. As Archbishop Ratzinger, he wrote in Ordinariatskorrespondenz:
In crowded places we can observe for ourselves, without having to read about it, that in and with the life-sustaining element of air we are also breathing in the poisons that destroy life. But no one speaks about the pollution of the spiritual environment that poisons the atmosphere in which alone spirit can survive — about poisoning of hearts and spirit that is due to this pollution and is far more alarming than the illnesses that are caused by physical pollution.”
In light of Benedict’s comment, I wonder: did we really need to hear Francis’s warnings about the oceans to notice when we are surfing in sewage? Perhaps, since our society is often bizarrely unconscious about some of the most obvious things. But in Laudato Si, I am not sure Francis speaks much truth to the powers that pollute our spiritual environment. If anything, he may have emboldened them.Published in