Reflection. The Green Pope: Francis & The Ethic of Responsibility

We have become accustomed to warnings that TV news reports from war zones may be disturbing.  They usually are distressing.  But so are reports on the consequences of climate change.  And they come without such warnings despite the dire implications of further global warming.

On 4 October, St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day, Pope Francis published Laudato Deum “Praise God…. for all his creatures” – words taken from the song St. Francis composed in 1224 celebrating the unity of creation and his place in it.  Eight years had passed since Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si, (Praise Be) addressed to ‘every person living on this planet’ about “care for our common home”.  Laudato Deum is addressed to “all the people of Good Will”.  It is brief and, avoiding Vatican language, employs relatively accessible language about the climate crisis.  It is itself a warning and, unlike a formal encyclical, explicitly a call to action.

“I have realised that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing breaking point”, the Pope writes, citing the irreversible nature of changes such as the melting of polar ice which could not be reversed for hundreds of years.  “Regrettably, the climate crisis is not exactly a matter that interests the great economic powers, whose concern is with the greatest profit possible at minimal cost and in the shortest amount of time”. This is the Pope’s forthright verdict.  He pointedly mentions that the USA has double the amount of carbon emission per capita than China.

Francis establishes the link between fires, droughts, floods and hurricanes and the accelerating increase in greenhouse gas emissions, refuting the evidence-deniers.  Unusually for a papal document he draws on authoritative scientific sources, notably the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to prove that their increased incidence and severity is caused by human actions.

But he also takes his analysis much deeper.  The Pope sees our current predicament growing out of what he calls the ‘technocratic paradigm’, doubling-down on his critique of this mindset in Laudato Si.  “Deep down it consists in thinking as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such”. When human beings behave as if they are “autonomous, omnipotent and limitless” and “claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies”.

Hugely increased power, enabled by technological developments, lies in hands which ‘cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint”.  The ‘ethical decadence of real power’, Francis believes, disguises itself by clever marketing and fake information.    The world has become “an object of exploitation, unbridled use and unlimited ambition”.

Instead, he explains, “we are part of nature, included in it, and thus in constant interaction with it”, a perception he acknowledges still cherished by many indigenous peoples.  Francis shares the traditional Judaeo-Christian belief in the unique and central value of the human being; but he recognises the need today for what he calls a “situated anthropocentrism” in an “integral ecology” (Laudato Si) meaning that “human life is incomprehensible and unsustainable without other creatures”.

All well and good the liberal secular world might say, but what is the practical application of these ideas and insights?  How might they be brought down to earth and take shape in Governments’ plans?   These questions, which are also often strictures, to a great degree misunderstand the nature of religious discourse. The Pope is using his position and authority as head of a global Church with 1.3 billion members to sound an alarm, to arouse people to expect, to demand, effective action from governments, and to change themselves.

His discussion of obstacles in the way of coordinated international action, like to attend COP28 in Dubai this November, demonstrates his goal of provoking urgent action in the world of practical politics. For a papal communication Laudato Deum is detailed and crystal clear.  There are sections on the progress and failures arising from the COP series and even what to expect from COP28.  The Pope also writes about the need for some means of enforcing multilateral agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the general weakness of international politics in problem-solving.    He will certainly be promoting a Loss and Damage Fund to mitigate the ravages of climate change on the vulnerable countries of the global South.

Francis’ vision, shaped by his experience in Latin America of effective change coming from below upwards, may seem utopian.  He holds up the international treaty on antipersonnel mines as one example of effective NGO advocacy.  But this is much honoured in the breach.  Today a global civil society as an equal, benign and responsible player in international relations, curbing the prevarication and corruption of governments, seems like an ever-receding mirage.   Governments’ tragic nationalism and short-sighted version of national interest, their de facto rejection of the global common good – which Francis has written about elsewhere – is no less damaging than the ‘technocratic paradigm’ which accompanies it.

A few weeks ago, Greta Thunberg was dragged away from a peaceful demonstration in London outside a meeting between fossil-fuel executives and government ministers.   Her arrest highlights both the power, cynicism and irresponsibility of governments and the responsibility, idealism and weakness of young people’s peaceful protest.  They are deeply anxious about their future – anxiety caused, at least, in part by the pusillanimity and inaction of governments.

Religious bodies and organisations are doing their best to broadcast Francis’ writings on social media, and their best has got better in recent years.  But we want to be diverted from frightening news. We seem unable to hold the big picture in mind for long, whether the causes of violent extremism and war, and how to counter them, or the causes of climate change and how to mitigate them.  And if in pain and anger we give up on universal values, justice and human dignity, what ethical resources remain to solve our greatest global problems?

When a much-loved religious leader in Rome, with an old man’s sense of time running out, made his alarm call on 4 October, we most probably didn’t hear his message either from the pulpit or from the mass media.  So, neither were we likely to be disturbed by it. (Ian Linden, Professor at St Mary’s University, Strawberry Hill, London)

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