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October 7th, 2015

Father Knows Best

BY Christian Ford

In the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to the US, I’ve been thinking about a letter I got last summer.  You got it, too.  I know because it was addressed to every last person on earth.  Entitled Laudato Si’, (medieval Italian for “praise be to you”) it is what’s known as an encyclical, a letter which communicates the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Now, generally, I’m not a fan of hierarchy.  But every once in a very great while, the old white man at the top of the pyramid turns out to be a source of wisdom, particularly when he hails from a part of the world with a hefty share of the bottom of that pyramid and  surviving indigenous cultures which live the notion of “the care of our common home.”  The result, in the case of Laudato Si’, is like a Greenpeace manifesto processed through the translation committees of the King James Bible.  Witness the first page:

(The earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).

Now, if you’re wondering why a focus on food and culture should include the current Pope’s teachings, well, the Catholic Church is bedrock for Western Culture and the “sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life,” is a literal description of the crises converging on what our commodified language renders as “ecosystem services.”  You and I might think of it more casually as “the stuff that keeps us alive.”

My initial plan was to give a sort of gloss to the encyclical, since reading a novella-length letter would make it difficult for many to keep their social media accounts up to date. But other people have done the gloss and better than I would.  So instead, let’s just stipulate that the Laudato Si’ is a highly learned, historically aware, scientifically rigorous argument that the global train wreck of climate change is a moral problem.

Early in life, before discovering his vocation, Pope Francis spent time as a chemist, a bouncer, and beau of a few girlfriends.  Maybe that’s part of what made him a systems-thinking Pope, one who understands and hammers home that the central truth that everything is connected.  In other words, you can’t separate out business from environment, economy from society, or man from nature.

You also, apparently, can’t separate the bouncer from the pope, because we’ve had more than a decade’s worth of intense argument about the scientific, economic and social aspects of wrecking the climate, before a powerful voice manned-up to call it “wrong.”

That’s not without a reason. Take your pick of history’s what-were-they-thinking cultural suicides and they all share one thing:  when a society powers over the cliff, the people with their foot on the gas are the last to feel the effects of their poor choices, largely because everyone else is working overtime as the front bumper.  In other words, those with the power to affect change are also the ones most deeply invested in keeping things exactly the way they are.  And why not?  The status quo is working better for them than for anyone else.

That’s what’s fascinating about the Laudato Si’.  Here’s the man atop two millennia worth of cash, prizes and power calling bullshit on the totality of the Western enterprise.  Specifically:  “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man.”

There might be a temptation to attribute his stance to sour grapes, a response to some centuries of fading influence after a thousand years of calling the shots.  But then again, the Church has 1.25 billion members and expenditures to match the largest corporations, not to mention artistic and monetary assets that exceed all but a few nations.  So if I had to pick a side of the have/have-not divide to place the Church, it wouldn’t be hard.

In my own personal cosmology as a child descended from both French and Irish Catholic lines, I’d always assumed that I’d see the Church becoming a force for justice in tandem with hell freezing over, so understanding what’s afoot here takes some work.  First, I have to squint to look past the blood-soaked history and also grit my teeth to temporarily ignore the two-thousand-year catastrophe of the Church’s relationship with women.  But if I can do that, what I see is something startlingly new.  And, even more startlingly, old.

The paradox of Francis is that he is conservative and yet strikes us as radical.  To resolve that paradox requires going back to a time before the verities of Christian faith had been codified as just-so stories in everything from our language to our calendar.   Clarity requires hearing the message within its context, namely, the Roman Empire.

Now Ancient Rome was astonishing, an apotheosis of human achievement unequaled for centuries.  But underneath the history and language, the art and architecture, the law and poetry — and let’s not forget the roads that have yet to crumble and concrete the likes of which we still cannot replicate — Rome was built on a foundation of ubiquitous slavery and violence.  I’m not referencing Russell Crowe and CGI tigers but a grinding and merciless engine of wealth that supported the elite with the brutalization and impoverishment of just about everyone else within Pax Romana.

Who was a slave in Ancient Rome?  Doctors, teachers, farmers, miners — the list included most professionals and blue collar workers, too.  They were forty percent of the population of the city of Rome.  Yes, slaves could be emancipated, and even become citizens, but to get a sense of the slave’s position in society, understand that no slave’s testimony could be accepted in court — unless they were tortured for it.

Rome was a rational, orderly, law-based society whose primary organizing principle was violence in the service of power.  The Roman model of empire (rebranded but still available in stores!) is first-and-last about coercion and control — so that the spoils, whether they be gold, grain or the bodies of fresh slaves, can be shipped back to the center.  It was everywhere and inescapable.  It was how the world worked.

All of which gives us a glimmer of how astonishingly radical it is to have someone stand up in the middle of the Roman Empire and say that love — even for your enemies — is the true organizing principle of the world.  Of course, from the Roman perspective, people were always saying crazy things, so who really cares?  But when other people start taking the crazy stuff to heart — and when the crazy stuff is kryptonite to the fundaments of society — well, then, something has to be done.  Control must be regained and an example set.  Like a humiliating and public torture-execution, the kind reserved for slaves.

Playwright/politician/revolutionary Vaclav Havel —  who had firsthand experience of both the oppression of empire and how empires collapse — understood exactly why oppressive power-structures react so viciously when someone dares to articulate an alternate reality.  It was, Havel said, because everyone secretly knows the truth.  It’s there, like an unfelt virus, lurking in each soul, whether you’re an East German border guard, or a Blackwater contractor, or a slave in a Roman vineyard.  It is a potential, spread throughout the high and low just waiting for some imperceptible trigger to make it flash through the entire culture, triggering an implosion.

The reason Pope Francis appears radical to our eyes is because he accurately conveys the radicalism of the founding message:  stop visiting violence on everything you see.   What’s more, he understands that violence is not just about bloodshed, but is a much more pervasive violation of the integrity and dignity of almost every living thing.   “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

Radical, indeed.

In our Francis’ way of looking at it, climate change is less of a technological problem, an unintended consequence of industrialism, than direct result of grotesque inequality and willful injustice.  The economic, technological and social engines that fill the sky with carbon could not accomplish that work without the free reign to impoverish, loot, and despoil the billions of human and nonhuman lives which are powerless to resist.

C.S. Lewis, Oxford don, author of Chronicles of Narnia and no stranger to pondering the intersection of humanity and religion, deftly captured both the fable of progress and the meaning beneath:  “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as instrument.”

Francis, viewing the damage done to the biosphere and the grave inequality and suffering endemic to the globe after centuries of “lift all boats” capitalism, correctly understands that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

This, of course, is beyond anathema to (for instance) the Koch Brothers and other charter members of the Money-First School of Public Policy.  But at last we have them confronted not by earnest wildlife advocates or Vermont professors or charisma-challenged scientists, but by an honest-to-god rock star leader of the organization that invented Establishment Power.  It’s Godzilla vs. Rodan with the world at stake.

Or maybe not.

Because I know that this is how I want to see it.  I want to understand the Laudato Si’ as an antidote to other kinds of knowledge — that, for instance, the tide of migrants washing across Europe are likely the first wave of climate refugees, or that the bullet of multi-meter sea level rise has already left the gun, or that California, the greatest agricultural prize the world has ever seen, is edging toward dust bowlification.  But if I’m honest with myself, I’d admit that while the front pages were all about the pope a week or so ago, he’s been replaced with news of the corporate wet dream of the TPP trade pact, now escaped from its gridlock and awaiting congressional ratification.  It’s the dimetric opposite of  Francis’ suggestion that “the interests of economic groups which irrationally demolish sources of life should not prevail in dealing with natural resources.”

The more I think about it, the more absurd it seems to consider that, that even with such a remarkable pulpit, Francis’ message will have an impact.  For change to occur, the systems of politics, culture, commerce, industry, agriculture and finance would have to abandon the trajectory that is their very identity and, in most cases, the thing that has made them very rich.  I don’t think that more science or more information would make a difference. Many of them have read the warning signs they’ve blown past, and can already make out the pavement ending ahead.  That doesn’t mean they’re going to stop.  After all, they’ve got safety systems, so why not keep on collecting that check until the very instant that the inertial sensor fires the seatbelt pretensioners and deploys the airbags while the crush zones — filled with the energy-absorbing bodies of those unable to afford tickets on Virgin Galactic — take the hit.

Why not?  Francis would say, “because it’s wrong.”

And that’s where my own road ends.  Because I cannot make myself believe that enough of the people whom happenstance has put at the centers of influence and power would ever come to the point of answering the question that way.  Is that cynical?  It doesn’t feel cynical to me.  Rather, I’m tempted to say that it’s simply human nature.  But Francis sees human nature differently.

“Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts…. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.”

Maybe he knows the truth that’s still secret to me.


Pope Advisory by Elvert Barnes
Popemoji by US Papal Visit
Papal Graffiti by michael_swan
Into the General Assembly by United Nations Photo