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Pope Francis’ Prophetic Message

This post was written by TJ Whittle, a writer and editor in the Washington, DC area.

During Mass the Sunday after Pope Francis issued his encyclical Laudato si’ (Praise Be to You), Catholics around the world heard a pair of readings from Scripture on God’s power over creation. In the first, the Lord reminds Job that He controls the waves of the sea. In the second, worshippers listened to Mark’s account of Jesus calming the stormy Sea of Galilee and asking the apostles, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

But instead of calming the world’s concerns, Pope Francis has sent a prophetic message to all of us—those with faith and those still searching—that we should be terrified of what we have done to the planet. According to Francis, the environment has never been in worse shape, the poor are still hungry, and technology has distorted our lives and our ability to perceive injustice in the world.

Christians might be left to wonder: If God has ultimate control over the earth, then why is an encyclical on care for the environment so necessary and so alarming? Can the Lord not calm seas rising because of global warming? Is He not currently asleep at the stern during a time of trouble, just as Christ was in Mark’s Gospel?

Because God has entrusted mankind to care for the earth, it is our responsibility to right what we have made wrong. We must understand Francis to be speaking as a prophet, a voice crying for men and women to repent, reform their ways, and rebuild the earth. He tells us:

Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.

Francis insists that for too long, Christians have been indifferent to environmental degradation: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”

Francis is calling first for a change in each our hearts, and he insists that the problems we face run deeper than what can be corrected by technical solutions. This leads us to Francis’s core insight: problems with the environment cannot be understood separately from other problems of human ecology. “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Though this has been called an “environmental” or “green” encyclical, it is not meant to be read as an EPA report or a Greenpeace call to arms. Francis quotes Pope Saint John Paul II to emphasize the need to “safeguard the moral conditions of an authentic human ecology” (emphasis added). The obligation we all have to care for ourselves, for others, and for the world around us must lead us recognize the interconnectedness of the world, which is a gift from God.

It is because of this understanding of a deeper root of humanity’s problems that Francis warns against merely technocratic solutions to the environmental problems the earth faces. Because the problem is deeper than employing the correct tools to use the environment, the problem cannot be solved simply by improving the efficiency of consumption.

Francis is concerned that technology has tremendous power to do good and evil: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.” Francis insists that an advance in technological power is not necessarily a sign of progress, and he explains how technology can shape man for the worse: “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

As a work of prophecy, calling for repentance, Francis’s encyclical is reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film “Noah.” Aronofsky’s interpretation of the biblical story uses creative license to tell a J. R. R. Tolkein-inspired anti-industrial story of a world torn by violence, exploitation of the earth, and disrespect for God’s creation.

Noah’s submission to God’s will is contrasted with the story’s antagonist’s insistence that man’s God-given dominion over earth means he can destroy and pillage as he sees fit. While the antagonist is hiding in Noah’s ark (an example of Aronofsky’s creative license), he eats an animal that had been saved from the flood, saying, “they serve us. That is the greatness of men. When the Creator finished making the sky, the ground, the sea and this beast, he wasn’t satisfied. He needed something greater, something to take dominion over it and subdue it. So he made us in his image.”

Francis says we similarly “see ourselves as lords and masters, entitled to plunder [earth] at will” because of “violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin.” This temptation to plunder is a product of original sin that mankind is stuck with, but for Francis, advanced technology has made this problem worse through the new power it gives us over ourselves and the earth.

In opposition to the logic of Noah’s antagonist, Francis insists: “We do not understand our superiority as a reason for personal glory or irresponsible dominion, but rather as a different capacity which, in its turn, entails a serious responsibility stemming from our faith.” We are called to be stewards of creation, rather than plunderers of the earth. Many of us might not realize, or might not be willing to admit, the deep trouble the Earth faces. Francis teaches “the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion.”

“To search this encyclical for statements to trip up presidential candidates is to miss the point entirely.”

Christians who are not yet aware of the depths of the environment’s problems and the lengths we must go to help heal the planet must learn that “our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” Francis continues, “we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change.” This is a reminder that care for the environment must be understood as part of a complete human ecology in a fallen world.

Serious Christians will likely embrace most of what Francis has said up to this point. And Francis has undoubtedly led many who do not pay enough attention to environmental issues to think more deeply. As a prophetic work, the encyclical is undoubtedly successful. But his call for repentance is not equally matched in his policy proposals and economic analysis.

Although Catholics treat papal encyclicals with a high level of deference, when a pope moves beyond teaching on faith and morals and offers prudential judgments or specific policy proposals, Catholics have some freedom to engage and disagree with the pope’s application of the faith. As Francis explains, the encyclical contains “broader proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals, and also affect international policy.”

Still, there is an obligation to take seriously and apply the core truths emphasized in the encyclical; for Christians, those truths must be the foundation for any policy discussion. Fr. Thomas Petri, O. P. explains, “even if it is true that science disproves some of what the Holy Father claims as erroneous, for example, about the causes of climate change, that does not negate from the obligation to be moral with regard to how we treat the climate, how we treat nature, and how we treat the excluded.”

There has been much discussion over the encyclical’s treatment of global warming, but it would be a mistake to turn Francis’s prophetic voice into a magisterial mandate for any particular policy. In fact, Francis rules against cap and trade, one of the most popular proposals for addressing global warming, saying, “the strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.” He criticizes this policy as a “quick and easy solution.” To search this encyclical for statements to trip up presidential candidates is to miss the point of the document entirely.

Francis writes that in response to environmental degradation, “the failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” Francis seems to suggest that economic interests and markets must be seen in contrast with the common good.

In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI offered thoughtful considerations of the same topic. He insisted that “authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity, and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or ‘after’ it.” Benedict encourages us to humanize the economic sphere of life, rather than flatly condemning it.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat points out the encyclical’s “catastrophism also leaves this pope more open to empirical criticism.” Douthat notes that despite Francis’s denunciation of a global system supposedly indifferent to the poor, a 2013 World Bank study shows there was has been dramatic improvement in global poverty in recent decades. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day has fallen from half of those in the developing world in 1981 to 21 percent in 2010, while the population simultaneously grew 59 percent.

The same study reports that between 1999 and 2010, a period mostly overlapping with Francis’s tenure as Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013, extreme poverty in the region of “Latin America and the Caribbean” was cut in half, from 12 to 6 percent. It would be one thing if Francis had said good progress had been made in eliminating poverty and then encouraged us to do more. Instead, he railed against “the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain.”

Certainly, Francis is a man who knows the poor and embodies a life of humility—as archbishop, he spent time among the poor, refused to live in the archbishop’s mansion, traveled via public transportation, and cooked his own meals. Those who work closely among the poor might fail to notice larger trends of improvement. It can be tough to conceive of the good markets do because they arise through individual actions rather than through top-down design; they make their participants wealthier simply through the free exchange of goods. But overwhelming improvement in poverty renders all the more confusing Francis’ claim that “following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach.” We should be optimistic about eliminating poverty, not skeptical.

Francis does acknowledge the important role of private property, but reminds us that property rights ought to further human development: “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” There’s no need for defenders of capitalism to be upset by this. In a famous essay “The Essence of Conservatism,” Russell Kirk offers a similar defense of “private property and a free economy.” He says that these institutions are means in themselves, but also means to ends that “are more than economic and more than political. They involve human dignity, human personality, human happiness. They involve even the relationship between God and man.”

We should also note that despite calls for increased government intervention, Francis does not want us to fall into the mindset of technocratic regulators. Our problems can only be solved by deeper conversion to act more responsibly toward creation. “The existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct, even when effective means of enforcement are present. If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond. Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment.”

This is a deeply conservative insight from Francis: individual virtue must be inculcated by culture and institutions, rather than imposed by law. Finally, Francis stresses “the great importance of family” for creating “a culture of shared life and respect for our surroundings.”

Readers of Francis’s prophetic warnings ought to be deeply moved to improve themselves and the planet. But instead of looking at this social encyclical as a set of policy proposals, Francis’s primary message is that we must learn to see creation as a gift that we receive and care for. “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

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