Popes of the Catholic Church often issue encyclicals – policy pronouncements that declare the future directions of the church as regards one particular social, economic or political arena. It is a bit like an ecclesiastical version of the American president’s “State of the Union” address. In his recent encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis declared not only an embrace of climate science but a bold iteration of ecological values – all shrouded in religious language.
I am currently in the final stage of a book about progressive Christianity and as much as I tried to keep up with what was going on, the significance of Francis’ encyclical was such that new and distinct interpretations of it are being released every single day.
One of the most significant is by theologian Matthew Fox, who wrote a crisp and forward thinking analysis of Laudato Si for Tikkun entitled “Pope Francis’s Encyclical and the Coming Age of Creation Spirituality.” As my boss at Tikkun articulated, Fox is “a big deal.” Pushed out of the Catholic Church by then Cardinal Ratzinger, Fox has since been affiliated with the Episcopal Church and has been a leader in progressive and interfaith groups.
Echoing the observation by many that the encyclical heralded the arrival of religious language around an issue that had usually only been talked about in scientific, economic and political language, Fox called this new worldview of Francis “creation spirituality,” adding that many phrases in the encyclical reflected his own book Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality, including the proclamation that “nature is a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” and called the onslaught of an industrial economy “an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”
It’s important to note that Fox has not been a mindless cheerleader of Francis or of the new Catholic administration. In one article for Tikkun, he sharply criticized the canonization of Junipero Serra, an eighteenth century Catholic monk who played an instrumental and not all too glamorous role in stomping out indigenous cultures in the American southwest and installing Christianity in its place. Fox called the move to canonize Serra “a severe blow to the hopes of people looking to a reformed papacy and a reforming pope.”
Given right wing associations with organized religion, especially Christian groups, in the United States, it may seem a bit out of left field for many outside of the religious world for Francis not only to embrace alarm about climate change but to also take the lead with it. The momentum in that direction had been building for some time, however. A large climate march in late 2014 took place in New York – the march was taken lead by many religious groups. While attending Unitarian services in Oakland last year, I saw a congregation that was very active on the climate change issue and saw it as imperative for all humans to act as members of a global community. Many of them attended the march in New York and performed a replica, miniature march in downtown Oakland. Much of the language was much like what Francis has used in Laudato Si.
A march is one thing. Actual policy change is a whole other entity and Bob Massie at The Nation lamented that the encyclical could possibly change the investment behavior of religious institutions throughout America. Religious institutions often have the most reliable source of income of non-profits in the country and if a substantial level of churches lessened investment in fossil fuels, it could dramatically change the country’s way of life. Massie notes that there are 70 million Catholics – one in five Americans. Massie notes that there are several progressive groups that have been elevated by Francis’ encyclical – the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, led by Sister Pat Daly, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, led by Sister Barbara Aires and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Francis’ encyclical is rife with proclamations that would lead these groups to a new role of significance and thus re-orient economic policy for much of society.
It has often been the dynamic that religious groups will accept scientific conclusions or social change after the fact, only accepting it after the dust has settled and opposition is now hazardous. The battle over climate change still rages, however. There are still conservative politicians who doubt that man made climate change is occurring, including Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio. Francis was daring and took substantial risks by making climate change his own issue, a risk that seems to have led to a great deal of reception. He has made it an issue of faith and has effectively put conservatives on the issue on the defensive, by means of the world’s largest and most significant religious institution.
Photo by Mark Dollner, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license