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Defending their corner from Francis

26 June 2015

Responses to Laudato Si' show hearts hardening, says Paul Vallely

THE Pope's new eco-encyclical Laudato Si' has drawn responses from critics on the Left and the Right which have something in common. Both have applauded the elements that reinforce their prejudices and preconceptions - and both have hardened their hearts to avoid the challenges that Pope Francis is making to their received wisdoms.

Conservatives - particularly those with a zealously ideological view of the free market, or those funded by the oil and coal industry - have objected to the encyclical's acceptance of the "very solid scientific consensus" that global warming is caused "mainly as a result of human activity" connected with the excessive burning of fossil fuels. As ever, their attempted rebuttals rely on assertion rather than scientific evidence.

But the Pope's critique goes deeper and wider than that. Our society, in practice, elevates the values of the market above all others, he says. This has corrupted our view of the world, and of other people, so that we see them predominantly as objects to be manipulated for our personal gain. Laudato Si' is essentially an attack on unmoderated capitalism.

This is really why US Republicans such as Jeb Bush are so irritated. And this is why many on the Right have resorted to Yah-Boo Theology in response. As one hardliner put it: "The liberals have ignored popes on abortion and gay marriage for decades, so why shouldn't we ignore this Pope on climate change?" It is clearly not just the liberals who are the "cafeteria Catholics" now.

From the Left, the chief criticism has been of the encyclical's cursory dismissal of population control as the answer to global warming. "A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level that provides all humans with adequate food and access to medicine, water, and security," proclaimed a blogger on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Only Roman Catholic dogma blinded the Pope to that.

But population is a red herring here. Poor people make hardly any contribution to global warming, as the atheist climate scientist chosen by the pope to present Laudato Si' at its launch pointed out. If we rich nations cut our emissions by just ten per cent, Professor John Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact said, that would be "much more effective than any population strategy you might put in place".

The world may have too many people, but most of the surplus population is in the United States, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, and among rich Arabs in the Gulf States, who top the international tables for per-capita energy use or population density per square kilometre.

"Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations," the Pope says in Laudato Si'. The same might be said of each sector of contemporary society, determined to defend its own lifestyle or world-view. The irony is that, in the encyclical, Pope Francis is calling the world to a new openness. Harden not your hearts, the Lord warned the psalmist, recalling how our fathers put God to the test, though they had seen his work. Creation is God's work all around us, but we do not lift our eyes to see.


Paul Vallely's biography, Pope Francis: Untying the knots, is published by Bloomsbury.


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