I’m not a big fan of organized religion, and the Catholic Church is about as organized as they come. Still, it’s hard not to like Pope Francis.
I haven’t jumped on his bandwagon yet, but his encyclical on climate change – issued on June 18 – should encourage us at least to walk alongside.
The Pope’s most appealing qualities – humility, compassion, self-effacement – are probably also his most Christ-like. Still, he managed last week to mesh those qualities with his larger obligation to practice leadership and assertion for 1.2 billion Catholics, as well as for much of the rest of the world’s faithful.
The Catholic Church hasn’t always been on the right side of science, but in his encyclical Pope Francis endorses clearly, emphatically and eloquently what most scientists have been telling us for a couple of decades: climate change is real, man-made and fraught with imminent danger for everyone.
He’s particularly concerned about the world’s poor, who will suffer the most from famine and rising sea levels, after having enjoyed the least pleasure and comfort from our century-long hydrocarbon binge.
So, good for Pope Francis. But is anyone going to pay attention to news that no one particularly wants to hear?
Others have pointed out the awkwardness that the Pope’s message presents for the several Catholics who have declared for the Republican nomination for president, all of whom have had very little to say about climate change.
Jeb Bush, a Catholic convert of two decades, was dismissive, saying that “religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”
He adds: “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
Of course, Bush and other Republicans – and even Democrats, sometimes – are quick to turn to religion to support other planks in their platforms. But Bush’s statements reflect just how far gone are the days when John F. Kennedy had to defend himself against worries that his presidency might be controlled from the Vatican.
Of course, Catholics have no monopoly on the inclination to ignore the most high-minded guidance and commandments of their spiritual leaders, including Jesus. For a “Christian nation,” we sometimes do the most “un-Christian” deeds.
And this is why the Pope’s encyclical will have trouble getting much traction in America or anywhere else in the developed world that enjoys the standard of living provided by the energy that comes from burning hydrocarbons. Everyone will suffer from climate change, but the pleasures of hydrocarbons are such that the nations that really enjoy them are going to be very reluctant to bring the party to an end.
Thus, Pope Francis faces an uphill battle, precisely because he wants to take on the task that Jeb Bush says that he should confine himself to, that is, “making us better as people.”
In fact, in his encyclical Francis rejects the perennial policy solutions proposed for climate change, such as a carbon tax, a free-market approach that is probably too little, too late. Instead, he makes an ambitious call for us to fundamentally rethink our relationship to the earth and to each other.
Do we really need so much material stuff and comfort? Is there a way to reconcile ethically the extraordinary wealth of a small proportion of the world’s citizens with the crushing poverty of many millions? Do we have an ethical or moral obligation to nurture rather than destroy this marvelous and perhaps unique corner of the universe?
How Christ-like these questions are. And how unlikely they are to receive a serious reception in the developed world. Still, the Pope deserves credit for having the courage and wisdom to raise these issues. I wonder how many years into the future we'll go before we look back and wish we had listened to him.
Contact John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service who teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas at firstname.lastname@example.org.