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