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The pope's climate change message is really about rethinking what it means to be human

Given the media coverage since its release, and the political implications of the pope throwing his moral weight behind one side in a high-stakes debate about climate policy, one could be forgiven for thinking that Pope Francis's new encyclical is mostly about climate change and what we need to do to combat it.

Except it is and it isn't. In fact, mostly it isn't.

What makes this encyclical controversial is its reading of contested questions of science, economics, and politics. What makes it radical — in the sense of going to the root — is the pope's reading of the profound human crisis that he sees underlying our modern world. Abuse of our environment isn't the only problem facing humanity. In fact, Pope Francis sees the ecological crisis as a symptom of a deeper crisis — a human crisis. These two problems are related and interdependent. And the solution is not simply to eliminate fossil fuels or rethink carbon credits. The pope is calling on the world to rediscover what it means to be human — and as a result, to reject the cult of economic growth and material accumulation.

Reading the encyclical, one quickly realizes that the "pope fights climate change" narrative is far from the whole story. In fact, that line leaves out the most fundamental themes of the encyclical: the limits of technology and the need for what he calls an "integral ecology," which "transcend[s] the language of mathematics and biology, and take[s] us to the heart of what it is to be human."

The science

Most of what Pope Francis has to say about climate change — and pollution, loss of biodiversity, lack of access to water, etc. — is in the first chapter. This section has garnered the most headlines — along with a later chapter, which looks at practical solutions — because it touches most directly on contested questions of science and policy.

The pope's assessment of the current environmental crisis is grim: "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth." On climate change, he writes, "A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system." He goes on to warn: "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."

Pope Francis sees the ecological crisis as a symptom of a deeper crisis — a human crisis

As for who is responsible for all this, he places the burden at the feet of the developed world: "Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change."

Francis warns especially of the damage that our "culture of waste" does to the poor. He dismisses attempts at population control while leveling broadsides against financial markets, inequality, and the indifference of the rich. Moreover, he sees all these disturbing trends as interconnected. A casual attitude toward material goods leads to a casual attitude toward people. A willingness to exploit creation is deeply connected to a willingness to exploit human beings.

The limits of technology

While much has been said about the pope's embrace of the scientific evidence of climate change and the dangers it poses, the irony is that he addresses this crisis in a way that calls into question some of the oldest and most basic assumptions of the scientific paradigm.

Francis Bacon and René Descartes — two fathers of modern science in particular — would have shuddered at this encyclical. Bacon was a man of many talents — jurist, philosopher, essayist, lord chancellor of England — but he's mostly remembered today as the father of the scientific method. He is also remembered for suggesting that nature ought to be "bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets." Descartes, for his part, hoped that the new science he and men like Bacon were developing would make us, in his words, "masters and possessors of nature."

At the very outset of the encyclical, before any mention of climate change or global warming, Pope Francis issues a challenge to the Baconian and Cartesian view, which sees the world as so much raw material to be used as we please. Neither Descartes nor Bacon is mentioned by name, but the reference is unmistakable. Pope Francis insists that humanity's "irresponsible use and abuse" of creation has come about because we "have come to see ourselves as [the Earth's] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will."

Put another way, Pope Francis insists that the material world isn't just mere stuff to be dissected, studied, manipulated, and then packaged off to be sold into service of human wants and needs. The pope repeatedly warns against the presumption that technological advances, in themselves, constitute real human progress. In a typical passage, he writes, "There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere." The pope writes critically of "irrational confidence in progress and human abilities." He writes hopefully of a time when "we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress."

This isn't to say that Pope Francis is anti-technology or even, as some have suggested, anti-modern, but he is deeply critical of both our technological mindset and modernity's utilitarian propensities. While he acknowledges with gratitude the benefits humanity has derived from modern technology, which has "remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings," he also calls into question — forcefully — the idea that utility is the proper measure of our interaction with creation.

An integral, human ecology

The utilitarian mindset that treats creation as so much "raw material to be hammered into useful shape" inevitably leads us to see human beings through the same distorted lens. Pope Francis is unsparing in his criticism of the disregard for human life, insisting, as his predecessors did, that any authentic ecology must be built on what Pope John Paul II called "human ecology." Pope Francis states directly:

[C]oncern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?

It's not just abortion that is incompatible with an authentic ecology. "There can be no ecology," Pope Francis writes, "without an adequate anthropology." That means we have to recognize the limits to our own freedom, even with regard to ourselves. "[T]hinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation." Francis goes on to warn against unhealthy attempts to "cancel out sexual differences."

"Everything is connected" is a constant refrain in this encyclical, and it serves to underscore the way Pope Francis understands the vocation — the calling — of the whole human race. We were made by God and for God. His gift of creation is also part of that vocation and comes with responsibility for its care and development. We're part of creation, but also is custodians. Creation's greatest beauty is in its ability to reflect the glory of its maker.

Christians believe in a God who entered into his own creation in order to redeem it

Most religions understand that reality is not limited to physical existence; there are also spiritual realities. But Christians, and Catholics in particular, have always insisted that while the spiritual and physical are distinct, they aren't so easily separated. Even material reality is more than just material.

Many Christians, and certainly Catholics, take a sacramental view of reality: a view in which mere things are never just mere things. All that exists is shot through with meaning, since it bears the fingerprints of the one who made it. Pope Francis quotes Scripture to this effect: "Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker" (Wisdom 13:5).

Moreover, Christians believe in a God who took on human flesh — entered into his own creation — in order to redeem it. "For Christians," Pope Francis writes, "all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation."

This sacramental view of the world changes the way Catholics estimate the worth and value of things, which have their own intrinsic worth and meaning apart from any utility they might hold for us. Because creation is the gift of a loving God, entrusted to us all for its care and maintenance, we are not free to simply do with it as we please. For Pope Francis, the world is most definitely not what we make of it; it's much more.

The critics

Critics will (and do) argue that the pope does little to grapple with the tension between the economic growth and development that has allowed billions to escape dire poverty — development fueled, literally, by the same polluting technologies Francis sharply criticizes and would see curtailed — and the pope's call for all to share in the very benefits that such growth and development has made possible. For all its problems, the fact that the global economy has lifted billions out of the worst poverty must count for something. Would the pope have us hamstring the engine of economic development for the sake of environmental conservation? And if so, how are the poor to receive the incredible benefits that our modern economy has made possible?

The pope's answer, it seems, is that the material benefits of our modern economy might not be quite so wondrous as we like to think. In a poorer world, a world less able to afford self-reliance, solidarity between people will be all the more important. As he writes toward the end of the encyclical:

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that "less is more."

This may be rather shocking to some, perhaps even most. So let me suggest a way to understand how the "pope of the poor" can, essentially, advocate for a poorer world. Francis is a man who understands that abject poverty grinds men down and crushes their human dignity. It is inhumane and unjust, a source of scandal and a cause for moral outrage. But the pope is also a man who understands that there is a kind of relative poverty in which basic material needs are met but there is limited room for luxury and no room for waste.

This kind of poverty can provide detachment from material things, allowing us to enjoy them for what they are — gifts from a generous and loving God. This understanding of poverty — which has deep Christian roots going back to the Gospel itself — is far from an unqualified evil. In fact, it's a virtue. And for Pope Francis — a man who long ago took his own vow of poverty, and took as his namesake a man of profound poverty, Francis of Assisi — this understanding provides a crucial insight into the way human beings relate to the world around us and to one another.

Like I said, the pope's views on climate change aren't what make this a radical document.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC.

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