The coming climate encyclical of Pope Francis, coupled with his visit to Washington D.C., might ensure a global agreement in Paris this December and transform environmentalism into a movement based on social justice.
The Pope's message also might ignite a greater spiritual awakening and an opportunity to challenge the foundations of a global order which forces billions of people to survive amidst poverty and pollution.
Secularists and the many who define themselves as "spiritual" but not "religious" may miss or even dismiss the coming moment. This is what is about to happen.
The papal encyclical on climate will be released by June or later this summer, urging the world's powers to adopt a climate change agreement at this December's United Nations-sponsored talks in Paris. The encyclical will be circulated for several weeks of study in all Catholic institutions everywhere. The document adds force to the 2009 Catholic Climate Covenant already adopted by US Catholics, which includes the "St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor."
The Pope will meet with President Barack Obama and speak to Congress at the invitation of Catholic Speaker of the House John Boehner. Six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. So are Vice President Joseph Biden, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin, along with 31 percent of Congress members overall.
The Catholic roots of America's trade union movement and Democratic Party run deeply as well. The Catholic population of the United States consists of 78 million people, a growing 21 percent of the population. "Hispanic" Catholics are 34 percent of that total, or 30.4 million people. The "non-Hispanic white Catholics" are 36 million (Irish, German, Italian). Latinos are about ten percent of the national vote, lean strongly towards the Democrats, and strongly favor climate justice, as do the peoples of Latin America, according to recent Pew polls.
In the United States, disparities still exist between the largely white environmental organizations and communities of color. Those differences are beginning to shift in California with the passage of AB 32 and SB 535, laws that simultaneously mandate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and "co-benefits for disadvantaged communities." The rise of Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon as a champion of climate justice is an historic change in the state's environmental politics.
The implications for the UN climate talks are huge. The California model, symbolized by environmentalist Governor Jerry Brown and immigrant rights leader De Leon, speaks to the needs of a world majority that is both poor and polluted.
The backing of Pope Francis makes all the difference. Though papal elections are even more secret and convoluted than recent American ones, it is certain that the Latin American block of cardinals voted for Francis in a split Vatican election.
At the moment of his selection, the new Pope recalls, he was, "Thinking of the poor...of Francis of Assisi...the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation...these days we do not have a very good relation with creation, do we?" (Pope Francis, March 13, 2013)
He went on about St. Francis, whose name he would choose, "Francis, who teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment, which all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another's detriment...We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation. The implications of living in this horizontal (1) manner (is that) we have moved away from God, we no longer read his signs."
Last year his analysis sharpened: "Creation is not a property which we can rule over at will; or even less, is the property of only a few. Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us..." "We have, in a sense, lorded it over nature, over Sister Earth, over Mother Earth...I think man has gone too far...Thank God that today there are voices that are speaking out about this."
It is unclear whether Pope Francis will embrace the "stewardship" model of the human role in creation, the mainstream view of leaders like Al Gore, or explore the "kinship" model embodied by the original Francis, many native people, environmental biologists and the counter-culture. When the Pope speaks of "Mother Earth" he consciously uses the language of the indigenous of Latin America, not the cold terminology of those who believe they can engineer nature in the face of looming catastrophe. The Pope is moving towards what many like Matthew Fox have described as "creation spirituality," a theological response to corporate Christian and market fundamentalism. In this wider view, all of creation is considered the holy work of God, not a backdrop to the human drama. Nor is the earth a mere storehouse of raw materials set aside for human exploitation.
Unlike some current forms of environmentalism, the Pope's view arises from an underlying commitment to the poor, rooted in the liberation theology movement that arose in Latin America in the late 1960’s. As a rector in Buenos Aires during the dictatorship of the 1980’s, the future Francis was entangled in questions of whether liberation theology doctrine had become only a mask for the materialist doctrines of the Left. Controversy broke out when another future pontiff, Joseph Ratzinger (2), issued a silencing order on Leonardo Boff (3), a Franciscan from Brazil and advocate of liberation theology. The silencing lasted nine months, and stirred widespread opposition to Ratzinger across Latin America. Ratzinger, who headed the former Office of the Inquisition, was a favorite of Catholics in the Ronald Reagan administration who fiercely opposed liberation theology and did everything to undermine it.
Among his first acts as the new Pope, Francis welcomed Boff and another founder of liberation theology, Peru's Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, to reconcile with him in the Vatican. Boff, 74, immediately issued this ringing statement about the new Pope:
"Francis isn't a name. It's a plan for a church that is poor, simple, gospel-centered, and devoid of all power. It's a church that walks the way together with the least and the last that creates the first communities of brothers and sisters who recite the breviary under the trees with the birds. It's an ecological church that calls all beings those sweet words, 'brothers and sisters'. (The first) Francis was obedient to the church and the Popes and at the same time he followed his own path with the gospel of poverty in hand."(4)
According to Boff in 1995, the original Francis was a mystic who wrote the hymn "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" when he was sick and almost blind, partly a result of his long thirteenth-century struggle against the Vatican's One Percent. He violated the norms of his age through his love for Clare of Assisi, for his embrace of beggars and his speaking to birds and wolves. The original Francis embodied kinship with the universe. After his death, the Vatican institutionalized many of his followers as a new order, the Franciscans. Many feel that Francis died of a broken heart.
Now the spirit of Francis is coursing through the hardening arteries of the world. As Boff wrote of the One Percenter’s 20 years ago:
"It is not Marxism that makes the system afraid. Society and some ruling elements are afraid of God. They are afraid of this God who liberates, who upholds the struggles of the oppressed and gives them courage to accept the final sacrifice. They cannot accept the fact that the option of the poor against their poverty springs from the heart of the Christian faith and from the very essence of the Biblical concept of God...this libertarian idea breaks the monopolistic hold that Marxism had on revolutionary utopias...(and) frees Christianity from the conservative slavery to which the capitalist order had subjected it..."(5)
Many secular and mainstream environmentalists may be challenged by the introduction of revolutionary spirituality into the tedious and incremental debate over climate change. Solutions are the business of businessmen, lawyers and politicians, they will argue, not theologians in a world already ripped by sectarian divisions. The best approach is a utilitarian one, they argue, showing that the benefits (green jobs) outweigh the costs (higher taxes on carbon). These arguments should not be discarded. But is it "unrealistic" to inject questions of ultimate value into the debate? Isn't religious fundamentalism the belief system of the other side in the climate debate? Shouldn't the Right be asked if they worship Mammon more than God? Aren't most of our scientists devoted to a faith of their own, "technocratic messianism"?(6) Doesn't a truly scientific view of creation gaze into an ultimate Mystery that people of faith call holy?
Boff again: "The human race cannot deny its cosmic roots...the human psyche dates back millions of years and is inhabited by ancestral archetypes with roots sunk in life experiences going back to the first forms of life on the planet..."(7)
The process leading to the coming encyclical has been a long one. In 1992 at the first UN climate summit in Rio, religious leaders gathered on the sidelines while pragmatic officials hammered out the ambiguous and secular goal of "sustainable development". Four years later, leaders of religious faiths met in Assisi, Italy, to draw up a manifesto on "spirituality and sustainability." In 1993, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment was born in New York City, and began issuing revised doctrinal materials emphasizing the environment. At St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, the doors started opening on St. Francis Day to a "blessing of the animals" including camels, horses, frogs, birds and butterflies freely wandering the sanctuary. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and Chief Seattle(8) were studied in a new and reverential light. The Catholic theologian Thomas Berry synthesized science and spirituality in his epic The Dream of the Earth. (Sierra Club, 1988). (9)
Finally the time of a new revelation seems to have arrived. By adding a moral and spiritual foundation to the environmental argument, the battle against the climate-deniers and modern pharaohs will be joined at the highest human level.
(1) "Horizontal" here means focusing on the earth only, not the original cosmos.
(2) Benedict XVI (2005-2013), who now lives in an apartment at the Vatican. When he silenced Boff, Ratzinger was head of the former Office of the Inquisition.
(3) See Harvey Cox, The Silencing of Leonardo Boff, The Vatican and the Future of World Christianity, 1988, and Leonardo Boff, Ecology & Liberation, A New Paradigm, 1995.
(4) Thomas Fox, National Catholic Reporter, Mar. 16, 2013
(5) Boff, p. 99
(6) Boff, p. 75
(7) Boff, p. 86
(8) There continues to be a dispute over who wrote Chief Seattle's 1851, but the sentiment deeply reflected indigenous teachings.
(9) For further history, see my own The Lost Gospel of the Earth (Sierra Club, 1996, Ig, 2007)