Photo by Michael Swan

Here today and gone tomorrow? Not likely

  • June 28, 2015

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once famously quipped, “A week is a long time in politics.” It is a truism that Pope Francis and the Vatican might well be discovering about the widespread reception of Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

Initially there was near ecstasy at the idea that a Pope might actually make a moral argument, a religious case for sound and sane stewardship over the caring for our “common home.” News outlets that mere days earlier wouldn’t be caught dead praising anything the Church was associated with engaged in a battle of metaphors and superlatives that might most quickly and most aptly capture the spirit and sense of a learned document relying on 2,000 years of moral reasoning and a keen understanding of the most modern up-to-the moment science.

Wired Magazine wrote: “The Pope’s memo on climate change is a mind blower.” A Globe and Mail columnist described it as “awe-inspiring.”  

The sense of importance was clear. Pope Francis had paved the way for humanity to solve the “most pressing issue of our time.”

That was then. Now the carping, dissecting, dissenting and distancing begin. Atheists ridicule the theological and metaphysical basis of the document. The very idea of a right approach to our place in the cosmos and our orientation to the creator had some hard-edged climate-change advocates nearly vomiting. Others chose to accept the need for a moral revolution but dismissed as patriarchal nonsense his reasoning on a throw-away culture, and rejected the Pope’s connection with abortion and gender transitions as having no place in a document on the ecological disaster that approaches.  

Economists applauded the sense of urgency he brought to a pressing issue but chided him when it came to the role of markets, carbon pricing and how to spur economic development.

Depending on who you are and whose particular ox you want gored, certain sections of the encyclical were sheer gibberish and other sections were brilliant and offered vital insights into the human condition.

Perhaps more risible or more indicative of the superficial nature of the immediate reaction was the clear suggestion that no Catholic before Francis, certainly no pope before Francis, had ever entertained a thought, idea, opinion or observation about the way the world works, or how wrong or bad thinking in one sphere might lead to horrific results in another realm. Observers ecstatic over Francis’ invocation of the social justice of tending to the needs of the poor as integral to the salvaging of the planet have clearly missed nearly a century of social justice teachings.

The encyclical was never intended to be a one-day wonder or even a one-year sensation. It was intended to be a sober reflection on the dire state of the planet’s ecosystem, a call to action and a meditation on the moral fractures that have led us all to the brink of a catastrophe. That everyone wants to reduce it to a series of “the five key things to remember about the encyclical” or “the key take home points of the Pope’s memo” speaks more to the seriousness of our response than the integral importance of the document.

Of course none of this is the fault of either Francis or the Church. When Wilson opined that a week was a long time that was before the invention of Twitter, Facebook, the ever shrinking sound-bite and the domination of public discourse by celebrity news. And of course the time frame of climate change activists, focused on the Paris summit this fall, is different from that of the Church, an institution that has survived conflicting waves of intellectual and moral fashions for two millenniums.

A week is a long time in politics, but a mere blip in the long-term issues the Church wrestles with.

(Kavanagh is a Toronto journalist and the author of The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times.)


Sidebar: In Francis' words

Pope Francis pulled no punches in Laudato Si’. Here are some of his most noteworthy comments:

o Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest.

o The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.

o These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.

o Humanity is called to recognize 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.

o If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.

o There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.

o Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change... A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us.

o Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.

o These days, they (the poor) are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought.

o Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years.

o Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.