Thursday, June 18, 2015

Thank You, Pope Francis

What right does the Pope have to butt into public policy issues? What does he know about science, or economics, or any of that Real Men stuff? That's what candidate Jeb Bush wants to know, and a host of other embarrassed Catholic Republican politicians.

And it's a legitimate question: if we don't want the Pope's opinions on, say, reproductive health and procreation to influence our policies, why do we care about his ideas on climate and ecology?

First, he's using real science, drawing on his respected (Lutheran!) advisor from the Potsdam Institute Joachim Schellnhuber, who also advises Chancellor Merkel on climate matters. First assessments put the Pope's text on the cautious side of the scientific discussion. What to make of the claim (Bush's, among others') that Popes should stick to theology and leave science alone, as if theology dealt with some world other than our own? Catholic teaching has embraced science, ill or well, for 150 years, because it insists that religious faith is practiced in living, in the actual world, not alongside it.

But more especially, Pope Francis has established himself as a moral teacher, perhaps the best Pope in this role since John XXIII. And what he brings to the global conversation--more effectively than the most astute climate scientist or economist--is its moral dimension. Climate change is a technical problem, which needs to be addressed with technical changes both to the economics and the physics of energy use. But it is also a moral problem: the climate crisis is part of the problem of global inequality, the disproportionate appropriation of the world's goods by elites. The carbonized atmosphere is the largest imaginable instance of this justice deficit: the entire planet dangerously polluted, inflicting drought, desertification, hunger, and ultimately migration on the earth's poorest dwellers, mainly to benefit the excessive profits and consumption of the richest few. The Papal Encyclical is perhaps the most powerful framing yet of this moral problem of climate justice.

Of course like candidate Bush, the other minions of the Koch brothers, and certain disgruntled Catholic conservatives, we can reject Francis's teaching. He has no automatic claim to our allegiance. But he does claim our attention. He'll seize it again in September when he addresses Congress and then the UN general assembly. He speaks powerfully, and in this instance, credibly. He has made himself a valuable ally, and that alone is justification for the role he is claiming with this encyclical.

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