Fearing Pope Francis and His Encyclical

It is unusual for a papal encyclical to be denounced long before it is published. In the days and weeks leading up to the release of "Laudato Si", conservative critics blasted Pope Francis as a deluded megalomaniac, a dupe of the radical left, even as "the most dangerous person on the planet." No doubt, these blasts are part of a package deal that aims to discredit whatever Francis might say. If the pope is a dangerous fool, then everything he says is foolish.

Other critics have been less aggressive and hostile, though nonetheless equally dismissive. According to these folks, the pope is a religious figure. He should stick to matters of faith and morals, and leave science to the scientists and political matters (whatever those are) to the politicians. The goal of these critics is to make sure that the pope's influence is minimized as much as possible by sequestering him to the private spaces of, say, the bedroom, or the pious spaces of a church building. When James Inhofe says, "The pope ought to stay with his job," he is voicing one variation on the sentiment that religious leaders serve the increasingly quaint (and practically irrelevant) role of moral or religious decoration.

Why are these people so afraid of Francis and so threatened by this encyclical? Why does he need to be silenced before he has spoken?

The short answer is that in this encyclical (and in other pronouncements) Pope Francis is challenging the way some people think about politics. More specifically, he is asking fundamental questions about who controls and influences the political process, whose point of view gets maximum representation at the negotiating table, and what goals or ends the political process should be serving. Francis is a threat to the status quo, and those who are benefiting politically and financially from it are terrified at the prospect of losing their position.

The day the encyclical was released I had to get up early to give an interview. The first question the reporter asked was, "Isn't the pope a bit too radical when he says that our consumptive economy is turning our planet into 'an immense pile of filth'?" It was a revealing question because it showed surprise at the fact that today's global economy could do much wrong. According to the standard mantra, a growth economy is good for everyone. As the waters rise, everybody's boat rises along with it: except, of course, if you don't have a boat, or if you happen to be one of the millions of poor folk living along coastal regions and are seeing your shack, field, and livelihood decimated by storms.

Throughout "Laudato Si", Pope Francis writes from the perspective of the world's poor. In doing so he is signaling that it is time for us to stop thinking about political and economic matters from the perspective of the world's wealthy elites. Why? Most basically because these elites do not live with the destructive effects of what they are doing. Many of them have little or no idea about the damage and the horror their decisions cause. They do not live in the places of desolation created by their policies, and so cannot imagine that the methods and aims of the dominant economy need be radically rethought.

Francis is not being hyperbolic or hysterical when he says we are living in a "throwaway culture" that is systematically destroying the world's lands and waters (and their many creaturely inhabitants), and actively degrading the lives of millions of poor workers and their families. He is being honest. He is revealing what our leaders want to hide. And he is calling politicians and economists to be truthful in their accounting of the benefits and costs associated with their policies. Francis is happy to celebrate the benefits. But he does not hesitate to denounce as unacceptable--and as sinful!--the (often tragic) costs assigned to the poor and their lands.

One of the most striking things about "Laudato Si" is that Francis is saying the days are over when we could consider policy primarily from the point of view of the powerful. All people, especially the world's poor, need to have an equal voice at the table of political deliberation. Why? Because these are the people who bear the painful brunt of the decisions that are made. The poor, for instance, need to be at the table when planners and policy makers discuss something like the design of a city simply because it is the poor who have to live there. Each person, no matter how wealthy or influential they are, deserves a life in which they can fully realize the potential God has given them. That's not radical. That's being decent and humane.

Equally significant is the fact that Francis is saying that the earth's creatures need representation too. Someone needs to be speaking up for them because they are being degraded and destroyed daily. The days of anthropocentrism are over. It is time to accept and affirm that every creature is the material expression of God's love, and so deserves to be cherished and celebrated. God cares about people, for sure. But God also cares about soil, earthworms, bees, chickens, forests, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The world forms a created whole in which each creature depends on all the others. It is heresy to think that God would ever condone the destruction of what God daily loves into being. It is also short-sighted and stupid to destroy the things you need.

For too long people have thought that humanity exists in a bubble that floats above planet Earth and its ecosystem processes. People have presumed that the earth is an inexhaustible store, or a massive stockpile of "natural resources" simply waiting to be mined and consumed by us. This is a fundamental delusion because it presumes that people are exempt from the realities of the carbon cycle, plant and animal physiology, and meteorological processes. Every time we eat, drink, and breathe, we prove that our relation to the earth is not tangential or optional. Nor is it to be taken for granted.

It is time for our politicians and business leaders to understand this, repent of their negligence and belligerence, and then to imagine and implement a cleaner, more healthy, more beautiful world. It is not going to be easy. But "Laudato Si" is an excellent guide that can help them on their way.

This post appeared previously on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.