Pope Francis Rides an Encyclical
June 18, 2015
This could be big.
Religious and ethical impulses are powerful shapers of human behavior. That’s why, here in the US, corporate leaders long ago found ways to use religion to promote the notions that extreme economic inequality is perfectly fine with the Almighty, and that government regulations are the work of the devil (the story is recounted in this helpful article).
Today we are faced with the mother of all environmental crises (otherwise known as climate change), to which markets and pro-growth governments can provide no adequate response. Meanwhile the rapid economic expansion that characterized the late 20th century is ending, and the winners of that fossil-fueled lottery are intent on maintaining and strengthening their hold on the world’s eroding wealth. If humanity is to alter course toward environmental and social sustainability, only a profound, pervasive change of heart can inspire the kinds of shared sacrifice and collective effort that will be needed.
It’s at this pivotal moment that a new pope appears on the scene urging exactly that kind of change of heart. The papal encyclical released today (written entirely by Pope Francis) is a 190-page urgent call to action on two issues—climate change and economic inequality—that frames both issues in ethical, spiritual, and religious terms.
Conservative politicians and business leaders are bound to be unhappy, but they would be foolish to try discrediting the messenger. That’s because Pope Francis has attained rock star status; he’s even graced the cover of Rolling Stone. The “Francis effect” is bringing young Catholics back to church vocations, and Raúl Castro is so smitten with the “people’s pontiff” that the communist leader says he’ll even consider going to church. After decades of allegations and court cases about priests abusing children, Catholics now have a figurehead whose positive poll numbers surpass those of any predecessor since such surveys began.
And he’s a populist environmentalist. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, born in Argentina, chose the papal name Francis in solidarity with Catholicism’s most ecological of saints. Francis of Assisi adopted a lifestyle of voluntary poverty and preached the duty of humanity to protect and enjoy nature; Pope Francis is following in those same footsteps.
Real action on issues of climate change and economic inequality will require sustained hard work, and as that work proceeds currently wealthy swathes of the world’s populace will see their living standards erode substantially. Ahead lies resistance and conflict—that almost goes without saying. But now that the world’s most iconic and popular religious figure has weighed in on the side of the underdogs, the fight could get interesting.