Willing Pope Francis

September 24, 2015

It was during a meeting with the President of Ecuador in 2013 that Pope Francis said, “People occasionally forgive, but nature never does.” [1] This was a non-controversial statement if there ever was one. Nature operates according to laws rather than will, and forgiveness is an act of the will. It follows that what is done in nature will have ramifications in nature in accordance with its laws, not our intentions.

Apparently, this is not so obvious to well-known opinion writer George Will (no pun intended), who, being among those who are yet to be convinced that climate scientists have the requisite expertise to pronounce upon the climate [2], suggests in his article, “Pope Francis’s fact-free flamboyance,” [3] that the pope is intimating that environmental damage is irreversible, thus neglecting “what technology has accomplished regarding London’s air…and other matters.”  

Photo by Wiki erudito
Bearing false witness is a time-honored tradition amongst opponents of Catholicism, but here Mr. Will has presumed upon the reticence of his readership to read papal encyclicals. In Laudato si’, the message of which Mr. Will decries. Pope Francis says this:

“Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.” [4]

Photo by Tony Webster
Seemingly an advocate of the first position, “that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change,” he seeks to create a strawman by characterizing the pope as an advocate for the second. The pope does not reject technological solutions to the environmental crisis, but the state of mind that would rule any other solution out of court. Contrary to what appears to be Mr. Will’s position, Pope Francis acknowledges that there are “a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.” Of course, if one is disposed to reject the truth of anthropogenic climate change, he may not see that there is a problem to solve.

Mr. Will characterizes the pope’s statement in Laudato si’ about the Earth becoming an “immense pile of filth” as hyperbole. This characterization might be due to the fact that inadequate waste disposal is chiefly a problem in the third world, an area, perhaps, outside of the ambit of Mr. Will’s concerns. Fortunately, there are those charged with a more all-encompassing directive for the enhancement of human flourishing. The Inter-Organisation Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) published its “Guidelines for National Waste Management Strategies” in 2013 wherein the following observations were made:

“The challenges waste poses to governments and communities are many and varied. Globally, the amounts of waste being generated are increasing, especially in developing countries. Much of it is poorly managed, as in cases where waste is not collected, disposal sites are inadequate, or waste is contaminated with hazardous materials. When not properly managed, waste has major impacts on human health, especially for those living near disposal sites; protecting human health is the reason why cities collect municipal solid waste (MSW). Waste also has a range of environmental impacts, on air, water, and land; for example, decay of organic waste contributes 5% of greenhouse gases globally. Waste is a major economic drain, especially on city budgets: frequently 50% of a city’s budget is spent on waste management. And the inefficient use of scarce resources reflected in materials discarded and abandoned as waste represents a huge economic and environmental cost borne by society as a whole. Socially, waste has a disproportionate impact on the poor and marginalised in cities, towns and villages. Waste pickers and others earning a meagre income on the fringes of the waste management industry, especially women, are frequently among those who have most difficulty making a viable place for themselves in local economies.” [5]


Photo by Hullie
“In the present production and consumption process, natural resources are being consumed to the point of exhaustion, generating impacts on a planetary scale, imposing huge – but avoidable – impacts on human health and the environment and creating massive social disruption. Each of these problems is apparent in the generation of waste. Waste also presents a series of direct economic challenges, in particular with regard to the cost of collecting, processing and disposing of waste. Currently in most cities in developing economies, local and national governments are failing to meet these challenges, and there is little chance that the situation will improve under current policies.”

There is a growing problem of accumulating waste, particularly in developing countries, to the serious detriment of human health. Mr. Will’s neighborhood, however, is apparently fine. 

When Mr. Will notes that Pope Francis “deplores ‘compulsive consumerism,’ a sin to which the 1.3 billion persons without even electricity can only aspire,” it is difficult to see his point. Is he saying that compulsive consumerism is a good thing because 1.3 billion people don’t have the resources to engage in it? Or perhaps he only means to compare favorably a society where such a vice is possible with one based on subsistence farming, the kind of society he says that Pope Francis favors using these derisive words: “He leaves the Vatican to jet around praising subsistence farming, a romance best enjoyed from 30,000 feet above the realities that such farmers yearn to escape.”

Mr. Will thus attempts to paint the Holy Father as a sophomoric advocate of a back-to-the-earth lifestyle with no understanding of the implications of such a philosophy on himself, or, worse, as one desiring to impose a desperate manner of living on others with no intention of sharing in their fate. But the pope engages in no such advocacy.

In Laudato si’ Pope Francis quotes favorably the bishops of Paraguay, who say, “‘Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets.’” The pope’s advocacy for subsistence farming turns out to be advocacy for at least that much, and that with “‘access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets,’” not for a limit to humanity’s material progress. As difficult as Mr. Will might find it to conceptualize the fact, there are a number of people in the world for whom subsistence farming would be a step up, and the Holy Father has to be a universal pastor in the real world, not the fanciful one of a rhetorically gifted but palpably benighted writer of opinion pieces.

It is Mr. Will’s flair for language that lends him an air of credibility out of proportion to the veritable substance of what he writes. Thus when he tells us that Pope Francis “stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources,” one might be tempted to believe him, even in the face of the ironic fact that Mr. Will is a climate change denier. But there is nothing in the entire corpus of Pope Francis’s writings and statements to validate such a charge. Mr. Will’s words are, therefore, no proper indictment of the pope, but are instead a venting of spleen inspired by the pope’s exposure of a shallow and venal social, economic, and political philosophy.

Today Pope Francis addressed the United States Congress, calling to mind certain pertinent features of our own national heritage. At one point he told them this:

“Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776). If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.” [6]

If it seems self-evident that politics should “be at the service of the human person,” it is, perhaps, not so to George Will, who concludes his article by telling us that “Americans cannot simultaneously honor” Pope Francis “and celebrate their nation’s premises.” That makes little sense if we understand our nation’s premises to be about the dignity of human beings who have natural rights bestowed on them by their Creator. But if Mr. Will understands our nation’s premises to be about slavish devotion to an unregulated capitalism, then he is right; there is no compatibility between the message of Pope Francis and such an ideology. Indeed, there is no compatibility between Catholicism and such an ideology, and Pope Francis has done us a great service by awakening us to that fact.

Jack Quirk