Pope Francis’s Eco-FireworksJune 14, 2015 at 11:52 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis
It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone by now who hasn’t heard of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato si, due out from the Vatican this coming Thursday. An article about it is on the top of the front page of the New York Times today. Predicted for months, and described in advance by Vatican big-shots like Cardinal Peter Turkson, the encyclical will connect the dots between Francis’s signature commitment to the poor and the increasingly dire climate crisis The pope is going to call on us all, including (especially) world leaders in Paris next December, to change our ways.
If you didn’t grasp the significance of this encyclical already, you will when you hear that on Friday, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate environment and public works committee, announced that “God is still up there,” and that the Pope should do his own (implicitly spiritual) business and let the politicians do theirs. This follows upon Rick Santorum, ten days ago, telling Pope Francis to “leave science to the scientists.”
Given the history of Catholicism in the United States, it’s downright unimaginable that a leading non-Catholic politician like Inhofe would have enough respect for the head of the Roman Catholic Church to bother to tell him in public that he should mind his own business. Sixty-six years ago, journalist Paul Blanchard’s book American Freedom and Catholic Power denounced the Vatican for attempting to control American governance, and sold 240,000 copies in its first edition. A second edition appeared in 1958. Then, in September, 1960, a group of 150 Protestant ministers met in Washington and declared that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Democratic presidential candidate, could not remain independent of Church control unless he specifically repudiated its teachings. Days later, Kennedy clarified his position in his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy went on to win the election, but it was the closest presidential election in U.S. history, and many historians believe that anti-Catholicism played a significant role in Kennedy’s majority being razor-thin.
The Catholic (some would say Christian) Church was for many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire the civil as well as religious power in the West, appointing and crowning kings and intimately connected with the aristocracy. Since this was so, it became for many after the Reformation and especially after the liberal revolutions of “Long 19th Century” (1789-1914) the enemy of freedom and democracy. Indeed, not until the Second Vatican Council, and in particular, after the promulgation of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) in 1965 did the Church officially revise its teachings formulated in reaction to the French Revolution and the loss of the Vatican territories. (In that earlier teaching the Church had claimed that all states have an obligation to worship God according to the precepts of the one true religion–Catholicism).
A great deal has happened in the fifty years since the Catholic Church “entered the modern world” at the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965). In many respects, the Church entered the modern world just as the world itself was becoming postmodern. Catholics welcomed the Church’s acknowledgment of historical context, and the freedom of individual, but at the same time, individuals and their communities were beginning to fragment in multiple directions. For example, the United States Congress has gone, over that half-century, from passing a Clean Water Act in 1972 (under a Republican President) to being able to decide on almost nothing in 2015, even with a Republican majority. And it would take a computer program to keep track of all the Muslim groups that are peeling off and attacking one another with every day that passes. At the same time, the sea-levels keep rising, the droughts intensify, and extreme weather events multiply, even as the leaders of world’s great nations bury their heads in the sand
In the face of all this, the post-post-modern world finds itself desperately in need of a unifying figure, someone who can call upon our deepest moral instincts and inspire us to repent and change our ways. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that the head of a monarchical, change-averse, woman-minimizing, two-thousand year old religious body would have anything to say to the world in 2015? Even in the 2000s, as the Catholic clergy-abuse crisis was roiling the U.S. and Europe, it was virtually inconceivable that a pope would have anything more to say to the secular world than “I’m sorry.”
Yet it is worth remembering that the Catholic Church is the biggest religious organization on earth. One out of six people on the planet is a Catholic. And those of us who have spent our lives lamenting the hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the church–and I am definitely one of them–might bear in mind that having one person as the symbol of an outfit does have certain media advantages. Even the amazing get-ups the popes and the bishops wear give them a certain edge over at least most U.S. Protestant clergy, out there trying to give interviews in a suit and tie.
Finally, if there’s anything that we can learn from the massive attention afforded the prospect of an eco-encyclical written by a seventy-eight year old celibate pope, it’s that God has a sense of humor. And we’re going to need one too in order to get out there and sustain the creation that God has given us in the months and years to come.