Praise Be: Pope Francis, in his first encyclical “Laudato Si” (Praise Be) presents global capitalism with a stark choice. Either, brand this fearless pope a heretic and destroy him; or, embrace his radical Christian ecologism as a uniquely effective way of re-presenting capitalism to an increasingly hostile world.
POPE FRANCIS, like his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, is challenging the powerful to see the world through new eyes. The question, now, is whether the powerful will embrace this radical pope, or destroy him?
The fate of St. Francis would have been grim, had the then occupant of the papal throne, Innocent III, not recognised in his charismatic power a force of huge potential benefit to the Catholic Church. By extending his protection to Francis and his followers, Innocent allowed them to open a new pathway for the faithful. Pope Francis, in his first encyclical “Laudato Si” (Praise Be) presents global capitalism with a similar choice. Either, brand this radical pope a heretic and destroy him; or, embrace his radical Christian ecologism as a uniquely effective way of re-presenting capitalism to an increasingly hostile world.
Laudato Si is not only a masterful presentation of the case for the reality of global warming, but also a fearless exposé of its all-too-human origins. In linking environmental crisis with the mindset that places profit and private property ahead of all other considerations, Pope Francis is openly conceding what those on the right of politics have long suspected: that their opponents see climate change and capitalism as inextricably linked; and that the effects of the former cannot be effectively moderated without radically constraining the appetites of the latter.
It is this suspicion, now confirmed by Laudato Si, that explains the Right’s heavy intellectual (and financial) investment in the promotion of climate change denial. In essence, the climate change deniers want the world to believe two things: 1) That the “science” of climate change is highly contestable and very far from being settled. 2) That unscrupulous left-wing parties and politicians (especially the Greens) are using the alleged “threat” of climate change as a Trojan horse to bring down free-market capitalism.
In the context of normal electoral competition in the West, the general thrust of climate change denial has proved to be remarkably effective. Most voters understand that if climate change is real, then business-as-usual is over, and some pretty radical adjustments to their lifestyle must be imminent. But, if sufficient doubt can be raised concerning the urgency, the severity – or even the reality – of climate change, then business-as-usual will be able to go on for a little bit longer. And if the electorate’s ingrained historical fear of the Left could somehow be bundled-up with climate change? Well, then the life of business-as-usual could be extended almost indefinitely.
What makes Laudato Si so important is that its confirmation of the reality of climate change, and its indictment of capitalism as both creator and perpetuator of global warming, comes from a realm above and beyond the accepted parameters of electoral politics. Francis I is the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics – people who believe sincerely and devoutly that their Holy Father in Rome speaks for God himself. And if God’s anointed should speak with a left-wing accent?
The forces of conservative Catholicism have lived in mortal fear of just such a pope ever since the sweeping “Vatican II” reforms of Pope John XXIII. There are even those who, like the British author, David Yallop, believe that the last pope to advance the beneficial option for the poor, Pope John Paul I, was murdered by conservative ecclesiastical forces in the grip of the Italian Far-Right. Certainly, John Paul I’s successor, the virulently anti-Communist Pole, Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) put paid to the hopes of liberal reformers and liberation theologians all over the Catholic world – most notably in Francis’s home continent, South America.
Reaction and corruption are still deeply embedded in the Catholic Church, and their minions have already been given every cause to fear the reforming hand of Pope Francis. That they should reach out to their natural allies – the neoliberal defenders of a globalised capitalism red in tooth and claw – is only to be expected.
The American Far-Right, in particular, will be aghast at the contents of Laudato Si. In the electorally critical sun-belt, the votes of overwhelmingly Catholic Hispanic Americans could make all the difference to next year’s presidential election.
There can be no disputing that Pope Francis has taken a great risk in delivering Laudato Si. Equally indisputable, however, is the greatness of his purpose. In his own words:
“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. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good.”
Pope Francis has invited us to take ourselves and our planet seriously. It’s almost certainly the last chance we’ll be given.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 June 2015.