THE content of Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment,
Laudio Si, released yesterday, was not really the point.
The Vatican lays claim to no new scientific evidence, though its
reach to the poorest and least stable areas of the globe gives it
an unmatched authority on the effects of climate change. The
purpose of the encyclical was to lay claim to the subject: the
future of the planet is a theological issue.
The encyclical is being released shortly before the Pope's visit
to the United States, where climate-change deniers still hold sway
within the Republican Party. The Pope will address the United
Nations and the US Congress on sustainable development. Rick
Santorum, a Republican presidential candidate and a Roman Catholic,
has remarked that the Church would be "better off leaving science
to the scientists", which makes as much sense as suggesting that
politics be left to the politicians.
But perhaps Santorum is right to be hostile. Although the claims
for the encyclical are that it is moral and pastoral, it is, in
reality, political. Because so many vested interests are involved
in the trading of raw materials and the production of consumer
goods, it becomes a political act to argue, as Pope Francis does,
against consumerism and for sustainability. A Peruvian bishop,
Pedro Barreto Jimeno, spelt this out beforehand to the Catholic
News Service: "The encyclical will address the issue of inequality
in the distribution of resources and topics such as the wasting of
food and the irresponsible exploitation of nature and the
consequences for people's life and health." Inequality is one of
those concepts that politicians are willing to embrace as long as
they have the defining of it; they are more critical when it is
addressed by someone else, and especially by someone who has grown
up among the poor.
The success of the encyclical depends on its ability to persuade
people to change their behaviour. Up to this point, environmental
campaigners have run up against the same problem as the
anti-smoking movement encountered: it is hard to prove causation
against wealthy vested interests who can use libertarian arguments
to denigrate your concerns. Why undergo expensive changes to
businesses and lifestyles if the science of climate change can be
denied, albeit by ignoring the overwhelming consensus among
scientists? The Pope's intention is to circumvent this stalemate.
In one sense, future projections of climate change are immaterial:
because Western consumer culture is careless of the true cost of
its lifestyle, the Pope argues, it is placing its practitioners in
physical and moral danger. The personal consequences are already
clearly apparent. But it is not enough to concentrate on individual
behaviour: a huge shift must take place in corporate and political
ambitions, to align them with the experience of God known only by
those who have no material goods to put their trust in.
In Sunday's Gospel reading, St Mark brings up Christ's command
of the storm. Christ uses his power over creation to bring calm and
order. The power that humans exert over creation, and the chaos
they generate, are in stark contrast. This, above all, should worry
the world into action.