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Peace on Earth

With his intelligent, lyrical climate encyclical, the most ecumenical of pontiffs brings ‘the common good’ to new heights

Todd Gitlin
June 19, 2015
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis at the Vatican, June 2015.Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis at the Vatican, June 2015.Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Most assuredly he is Catholic, but also in the lower-case: all-embracing, universalist. In his intelligent, elegant, lyrical encyclical, Laudito Si’, published yesterday, he reaches for, and finds, something grander than a revised doctrine of the Church of Rome. There is, he writes, not only a Catholic but a human crisis. He steps to the bulliest pulpit imaginable and issues an Epistle to the Species, imploring all of humanity to “care for our common home.”

We Jews tend to feel rebuked and scorned nowadays, on a world scale, so it’s a special joy to be reminded of the common home where the many and disparate mansions reside, on earth. All those who profess any faith at all, not least the people to whom Jesus belonged, and including heretics and infidels of all stripes whose faith is something obscure, even to them, will have to try hard not to be inspired.

In scope, tone, and intention, Pope Francis’ harks back to Pope John XXIII, whose 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth, helped bring the Cold War powers back from the brink six months after Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy came within an eyelash of blowing up the world. John XXIII, Francis notes, addressed “all men and women of good will.” Francis calls his bet and raises him. He wishes to “to address every person living on this planet.” The world is approaching “a breaking point.” Even those of ill will must pay heed.

Feminists will rightly note that, straight off, Francis considers the earth a woman. The earth is our sister (we are to share our life with her) and our mother (who embraces us, and sustains and governs us). She rules. And yet we plunder her, take her as “lord and master.” Humanity’s sinful hearts have made her sick. She is, in fact, “one of the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” She is human. (Later on, in passing, Francis will stick to the conventional idea of a sexual division of labor, but at the inception he calls for care of the Earth Mother not because women are weak, but because they are the ground of humanity.) It is no more than an artifact of low-level consciousness to separate what is human from what is natural. Francis’ immediate predecessor, Benedict, put it more modestly, “Man … is spirit and will, but he is also nature.” Francis goes further.

He also goes beyond John Paul II, whose staunch anti-Communism obscured his distaste for savage capitalism. John Paul II invoked “the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use,” adding that while “there is a legitimate right to private property … there is always a social mortgage” on it. He called for “changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structure of power which today govern societies.”

Like the most Supreme of Courts, Francis quotes precedent—back to the story of Genesis. But the commending of creation to the dominion of man has been incorrectly interpreted. “Dominion” needs to be understood as “responsible stewardship.” The Bible teaches humanity to “till and keep” the garden of the world, noting that “ ‘tilling’ refers to cultivating, plowing, or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing, and preserving.” Francis cites Leviticus on renewing the earth via a jubilee year.

Benedict, for his part, decried the “deified market,” and he was scarcely the first pope to do so. Francis goes deep into his tradition, but he also goes wide, citing the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (speaking in 1997) to call for universal repentance for “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation.” And not surprisingly Francis returns to his namesake of eight centuries ago, noting that “concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” form a bond, a seamless garment. The Christian Sunday, he writes, is “like the Jewish Sabbath.” And, breaking precedent, he is the first pope to quote and commend a Sufi master, the 9th-century Ali al-Khawas.

He’s not just a tree-hugger; he’s a human-hugger. Francis wants action on earth, specifically calling on urban designers and architects, doctors, lawyers, and public-health specialists to their proper vocations. He honors the “worldwide ecological movement” and damns “cheerful recklessness,” “rampant individualism,” and “obstructionist attitudes,” which stem, he argues, from a speed-freak culture (“rapidification” is the Vatican translator’s more Latinate term) out of pace with biological evolution. Yes, kneejerk Church-haters, the Pope of Rome invokes righteous respect for Darwinian evolution. What he deplores about the Enlightenment is not that it upholds reason but that it betrays “irrational confidence in progress and human abilities.” And it is this irrational confidence that is responsible for most of the global warming of recent decades, which, he says, is the most grotesque manifestation of a “technocratic” and “throwaway culture,” of human contrivance, which is “mainly” responsible for the greenhouse gases that are overwhelming the world. He rejects “a magical conception of the market.”

Encyclopedically, Francis works his way through the dimensions of the interconnected crisis but what he compiles is not a laundry list of “problems.” It is a map of interconnection. There is “one complex crisis that is both social and environmental.” The dominance of the North over the South is “structurally perverse.” Pollution afflicts the poor most of all, he writes. Just so, most of the “worst impact” of out-of-control global warming “will probably be felt by the developing world.” The shortage of drinkable water shrinks public health. To use his italics, “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right.” But health is an aesthetic as well as a material need. Because the earth is treated as raw material alone, as a whole it looks “more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Human intervention “is making our world less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and gray.” As somebody else once said, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

Biodiversity matters for God’s sake as well as humanity’s. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.” Heretically, perhaps, I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1955 title, God in Search of Man. If I may presume, I think Francis would welcome Heschel’s invocation “to live life in radical amazement.” (This is also the point of the pope’s favorite Sufi Al-Khawas.) This God needs our help.

The pope adheres to the precautionary principle: Don’t take chances with creation. “Doomsday projections can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” He has a dialectical flair. Judeo-Christian thought, he writes, by “demythologizing nature,” emphasizes all the more “our human responsibility for nature.”

To Christians in particular, he recommends an “ecological spirituality.” He recommends the saying of grace both before and after meals. He believes that the Trinity is in everything, and he quotes St. Bonaventure to the effect that each creature “testifies that God is three.” Minor notes in this grand oratorio. This is still the Church of Rome, but it is interesting that Jesus doesn’t put in an appearance until more than one-third of the way through his 184 pages. Yes, this pope is still against birth control—and abortion. To abortion he devotes a single paragraph almost halfway through his 184 pages. In general, he is not much for particulars. He deplores that “the strategy of buying and selling of ‘carbon credits’ … does not allow for the radical change that present circumstances require.” He is skeptical about extremities of air-conditioning. He thinks there are times and places where growth should decline. But these are, in his grand design, details.

Pay attention, now, to see which shoes drop. Will the December summit in Paris take this very broad hint and produce an agreement that keeps most of the fossil fuels in the ground, as is needed? Will the Catholic hierarchy, and those of other faiths, put their organizations to work? (Will anyone refuse Communion to a climate-change denier or oil sands tycoon, as the Bishop of St. Louis said he would do for John Kerry in 2004 because he thought abortion legitimate?)

If one wishes to ask, on a more local note, whether this pope is good for the Jews, the answer must be: without question. Inspired from Rome, an assemblage of some 360 American rabbis even go further in the light of what they call “the unity of justice and Earth-healing”:

the worsening inequality of wealth, income, and political power has two direct impacts on the climate crisis. On the one hand, great Carbon Corporations not only make their enormous profits from wounding the Earth, but then use these profits to purchase elections and to fund fake science to prevent the public from acting to heal the wounds. On the other hand, the poor in America and around the globe are the first and the worst to suffer from the typhoons, floods, droughts, and diseases brought on by climate chaos … for about 200 years, the most powerful institutions and cultures of the human species have refused to let the Earth or human earthlings have time or space for rest. By overburning carbon dioxide and methane into our planet’s air, we have disturbed the sacred balance in which we breathe in what the trees breathe out, and the trees breathe in what we breathe out. The upshot: global scorching, climate crisis.

These rabbis have a program more specific than the pope’s. Among other things, they want to “move endowment funds from supporting deadly Carbon to supporting stable, profitable, life-giving enterprises”; they want “tax money to go no longer to subsidizing enormously profitable Big Oil but instead to subsidizing the swift deployment of renewable energy”; they want to “convince our legislators to institute a system of carbon fees and public dividends that rewards our society for moving beyond the Carbon economy.”

Call this then the Creation wing of Judaism. They step up with all the “sobriety” and spirit that the pope recommends. Is it impossibly naive to hope that, with “the common good” more palpable than ever, with earth and civilization at stake, an ecumenical spirit might knit faiths in the name of Creation?


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Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.