A fter the Second Vatican Council, a large part of the Roman Catholic Church stopped looking heavenward and began to look earthward. Not finding enough to say about the world of the Spirit, or anyone to say it to who’d listen, many in the Church opted instead for ‘engagement with the world’. Perhaps the world around them had become the only one in which Catholic hierarchs really believed in our sceptical age. Now, with the encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis in his new role of eco-warrior exemplifies this post-Vatican II embrace of the here and now.
Forget about what the Founder of Christianity had to say about where His kingdom was. The post-Vatican II Church found that its kingdom (or, perhaps, area of focus) was ‘social justice’ here and now. Forget about sinful souls. ‘Sinful structures’ (capitalism) were the real manifestation of diabolical activity in the world. Episcopal utterances, increasingly delivered not by bishops but by ecclesiastical quangoes acting in their name and paid for by Sunday Mass-goers, were framed in the language and values of socialism (the early Christians were socialists, it was said, but if they were in practice it was an expression not of class envy but of the commandment to love one another).
In all the places where Catholics were henceforth to be in the world but no longer not of the world, nowhere was the new gospel implemented with greater zeal than in South America. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that that’s where Pope Francis comes from; though there is evidence that he takes a not unfavourable view of that continent’s special contribution to Catholic thought: liberation theology – liberation being understood not so much as liberation of a spiritual and internal nature as defined in the Sermon on the Mount, but political liberation, by force if necessary, from ‘oppression’ – liberation from Caesar you might say, which is exactly the mistake the Jews made with Christ in their expectations of a Messiah. What is not a coincidence is that this man, who by training and experience is steeped in the ‘spirit of Vatican II’, has brought the full Vatican II agenda of engagement with the world, as it has developed in practice if not as intended by the Council itself, into every area of his papal ministry, and has now crowned his efforts with his encyclical on the environment, its title taken from a hymn by St Francis of Assisi in praise of creation.
Pope Francis knows no more, and probably a lot less, about the environment than many other people; but he has chosen to take up the cudgels on behalf of a powerful movement that asserts that greedy Western man is wrecking it (with his ‘sinful structures’). In an area where scientific hypotheses are far from unchallengeably demonstrated, the Pope has gone for the warming-our-way-into-self-immolation option. It’s what he was sold by his principal scientific adviser, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and there is no evidence that he consulted any non-subscriber to this view. For all his self-identification with the humble poverello of Assisi, Francis is a determined authoritarian; and having been persuaded by Herr Schnellnhuber et al that man-caused climate change is a given fact, he declares it to be so with the zeal of a Green. The earth, he states, referring to it as St Francis did as ‘our mother’, a concept now much favoured by neo-pagan environment-worshippers (and a term that used to be reserved by popes for Our Lady or the Church itself) is being ill-treated (it was tactful of the Pope not to use the term abused), and if we don’t do something about it we’ll find ourselves in an overheated hell. (Presumably that means we’ll be able to experience at least one of the Four Last Things without having to go to the trouble of dying first.)
Francis doesn’t believe in mincing his words: ‘an immense pile of filth,’ he says, is what the earth is starting to resemble (have the street-sweepers in St Peter’s Square downed their brooms?). ‘Once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Why?’ Well in part because of ‘a throwaway culture…’
From Sustainability 1.2 he moves to climate science. ‘A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system… Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it…’ and so on in the somniferous jargon of a Greenpeace tract. We’ve heard it all before. It didn’t need the Pope to say it.
Vatican II’s engagement with this world thus finds its fullest expression yet in Pope Francis’s parroting of modish ideologised science. Naturally, Laudato Si is being lapped up by a secularist establishment not notably inclined to listen to papal views on other topics, such as abortion, same-sex ‘marriage’ or more importantly the fundamental propositions of Christian faith, beginning with the existence of God. And this is the problem. Care of the poor and the planet should be a result of belief not a substitute for it. If the Church convincingly preached Christ’s doctrine of love of God and of neighbour, there’d be no need for papal encyclicals on sustainability. Responsible stewardship (as it used to be called) of the created world was not invented by modern environmentalists.
In his post-Vatican II focus on this world rather than the one to come, Pope Francis has given those who seek in Christianity the meaning of life a stone instead of bread. He has allowed himself to be used by ideologues, and lent his weight to scientific assertions that remain speculative but are accepted as true because people of a certain political view want them to be so as a first step to a new world order.
In 1992 Pope (now Saint) John Paul II acknowledged that, in a celebrated earlier excursion into scientific judgment, the Church had been wrong and the subject of its condemnation, Galileo and his theory of heliocentrism, right. That was, of course, a case where the boot was on the other foot, with the scientist in the ridiculed minority position global warming ‘deniers’ are in today. This time papal authority is on the side of an unverified scientific ‘consensus’. By endorsing it Francis might have bequeathed to a future Pope the necessity – embarrassing for both office and man – of again apologising for a predecessor’s error.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free