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The Vatican, the planet, and America

Pope Francis's document on the earth's future has become entangled in Vatican politics. But its most fraught reception will be in the United States.

Michael Walsh
22 June 2015

The Vatican press office is irate. It had hyped the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the future of the planet, named - in Italian (actually medieval Umbrian) rather than the much more usual Latin - Laudato si’, the opening words of a canticle by St Francis of Assisi. Then its efforts, conducted in a manner that the most efficient PR firm might have been proud of, were undermined.

The underminer-in-chief was the veteran Vatican correspondent of the Italian newspaper L’Espresso, Sandro Magister. Four days before formal publication of the encyclical, presented to the world by an unusual line-up of a cardinal, an atheist and a Greek Orthodox metropolitan bishop, Magister published what he claimed was a draft, but which appears to have been an uncorrected proof copy. The errant journalist has had his credentials withdrawn by the Vatican press office. The punishment has divided his colleague Vaticanologists.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of such a draconian action, it seems certain that Magister’s publication was part of an ongoing campaign against the Bishop of Rome, as Francis likes to present himself. Much has been written about how dysfunctional the papal civil service, the Curia, appeared to be during the pontificate of Francis’s predecessor. Now the battle-lines are different, but the Curia still appears to be at war within itself, and Magister has openly espoused the side of those who are more resistant to the changes which, it is widely believed, the pope is hoping to introduce.

There are many, even, perhaps especially, within the Catholic church who think the pope is all-powerful. Maybe in theory he enjoys what the medieval called the plenitudo potestatis, but that potestas, power, is not always easy to exercise. It is especially difficult for a pope who appears to want to persuade rather than to order. Laudato si’ will offer a particular example.

A common good

Technically this is Pope Francis’s second encyclical: in fact it is really his first, because the earlier one was taken over from the newly resigned (when it appeared) Pope Benedict XVI. Encyclicals are traditionally addressed to all the bishops of the church.  However, Pope John XXIII, whom Francis instances, addressed one of his, Pacem in Terris of 1963, not only to the bishops but to “all men of good will” - inclusive language not then being de rigueur.

Laudato si’ does not appear to begin with a formal address to anyone, a departure from common practice, but goes on say in the third paragraph: “I wish to address every person living on the planet … I would like to enter into a dialogue with all people about our common home”. And he sets out to explain and persuade in clear and simple language that “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, the water, in the air, and in all forms of life”.

The encyclical was widely trailed as an appeal to halt global warming, and though it is also much more, it is undoubtedly that. “The climate”, he writes, “is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all … A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witness a disturbing warming of the climatic system”.  As evidence he adduces the rise in sea levels and extreme weather events which, he argues, are largely even if not entirely due to the production of greenhouse gases. “The problem”, he says, “is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels”.

A coming storm

Research in the United States has revealed that Catholics are rather more likely than the general public, though not by many percentage points, to believe that the earth is warming, that the chief cause is human activity, and that this rise is a very serious problem. But that apparent consensus among Catholics disguises a deep division. Catholics who are Democrats are way ahead of their fellow citizens in being convinced of the reality of global warming, that it is a major issue, and that it is largely caused by human activity. That is not true of Catholics who are Republicans. They, like most of their party's members, are not persuaded. In this they trail far behind their fellow Americans.

This matters. Pope Francis is going to the United States in September. He will be in Philadelphia, where he will be welcomed by Archbishop Charles Chaput (a member, incidentally, of a religious order tracing its origins back to St Francis of Assisi), who is hardly one of Pope Francis’s most ardent admirers. Then he will visit Washington to address Congress, followed by a trip to New York to address the United Nations. Laudato si’ will be the background to what he has to say. It will not be welcome news to Republicans at a period when the race to be next president of the United States will be gathering momentum, and  when several of the Republican frontrunners, including (surprisingly) Jeb Bush, are Catholics. Commentators on the right have already accused the pope of playing politics.

The papal visit is likely to become fraught, all the more so because in Laudato si’ the pope declares that he intends the encyclical, in Catholic eyes a major teaching document, to become part of the church’s much admired social teaching. Catholics in the developed world are rather more left-leaning than the populace at large, but that does not hold for the US Catholic bishops. They have demanded in the past that Roman Catholic politicians who do not adhere to the minutiae of Catholic morality should be denied the sacraments. Are they going to demand the same of Roman Catholic politicians who do not adhere to the minutiae of Laudato si’?

If they do so they will lose many of their Republican sympathisers. What may hurt more, they are also likely to lose a good deal of their church’s funding.

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