- - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Pope Francis has become one of the most popular and respected figures on the world stage since his election to the papacy on March 13, 2013. Thus when he released his encyclical letter, “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” (“Praise to you, my Lord”) on May, 24, 2015, it immediately became gained international attention and subsequently has sparked significant controversy.

The encyclical consists of 182 pages of text which is both lyrical and scolding, poetic and prophetic, inspiring and despairing. He paints a picture of the entire universe as “the face of God,” and eloquently describes the resulting implications of his vision. As an image of their maker, all created things are interconnected, are worthy of infinite respect, and share the right to live in peace. He cites the words of his patron saint, Francis of Assisi, who spoke in his Canticle of the Sun (A.D. 1224) of “Mother Earth” and “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”

The pope’s discussion of the responsibility of the human race to care for the earth and all it contains follows from this vision. However, in our 21st century world, this responsibility, he says, is being sorely neglected at best, and wantonly abused at worst.

In his now familiar view, those who are to blame for this state of affairs are the rich, the powerful, especially the capitalists, and all those driven by greed and self-centeredness. The poor are victims not only of the economic systems which make them poor, but are also the chief victims of ecological deterioration.

It is this construct of the interconnectedness of ecological disasters, human poverty, capitalism, world peace, and the need for some super government which must fix all these interrelated problems which is so hard to understand and accept. Very few Americans, for example, would accept the idea that America’s riches are somehow responsible for Africa’s lack of water. (Never mind the current drought in California.) Nor would many observers agree that the expansion of cities in the world is necessarily a bad thing. Or that this expansion can be attributed to technology and capitalism without even mentioning the expansion of world population.

Thus Pope Francis seems to turn sometimes from the gentle St. Francis of the Canticle of the Sun into the Torquemada of the Inquisition, who sees evil behind every tree. This image is at odds with the humble, affable and humane image we have of Pope Francis, and this sterner image adds to the enigma which surrounds the man.

No one can fault the pope for being appalled by the problems which surround every aspect of human life and the natural environment in which we find ourselves as the people of the 21st century. It would be far more productive, however, if this holy man had some practical solutions to offer, or at least some inspiring vision to rally around. His recommendations, however, are fanciful at best. For example, no one is going to take the wealth of the Northern countries of the world and redistribute it to the poor of the southern countries of the world. Nor have assaults on private property ever succeeded in benefiting the poor – Communism has proven that redistribution of wealth just makes everyone poor, not rich. And even in these Communist regimes, there are always the privileged few.

His view of science and human progress through technology is also confusing. On the one hand, he seems to believe the so-called “accepted science” which decrees that the earth is warming at a dangerous rate, and that carbon dioxide emissions caused by human beings are largely responsible. He blithely asserts these very debatable theories as facts, thus setting aside one of the fundamental disciplines of the scientific method, namely, that all scientific conclusions are in fact theories to be tested by skepticism and outcomes. (He is not alone in this fallacy.)

On the other hand, he sometimes seems to hark back to the world view of Europe before the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement of the late Middle Ages which promoted the power of Reason and empiricism, and thus encouraged the rise of modern science and engineering.

Some of Francis’ criticisms are telling, such as the exaggerated anthropo-centricism (human-centeredness) of modern learning. However, many would argue that modern science overall has brought us more good than evil. Few observers in the developed countries would accept the idea that the world was better off in the time of St. Francis than in 2015.

Indeed, Pope Francis seems to be comparing our modern world to an ecological paradise, which may have existed in the Garden of Eden, but which has never been seen since.

A number of times in this long essay, Francis seems on the verge of discovering a whole new perspective on the interrelatedness of all beings. But in the end, he is never able to articulate his vision in a convincing way. That is really too bad, because we could all use a new vision of our environment which is big enough and exciting enough to inspire the human race to new heights.

Francis seems to realize his limitations when he says:

“Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality.”

Let’s hope the pope includes Americans in this respect for other cultures.

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