Well it’s official. Hell has frozen over. Even as a devout secularist, atheist, and humanist I now feel that even I have a Pope. His name is Francis.
I have always had respect for the Dali Lama whom I once had the privilege of meeting. Many years ago the Dali Lama told Carl Sagan that if a tenant of Buddhism were to be disproven by science, then “Tibetan Buddhism would have to change.” This was a refreshingly rational acknowledgment from a major religious leader that science must trump belief. Of course he was still stubbornly irrational in maintaining an implausible, untestable, and wholly unscientific belief in reincarnation, but it was an encouraging concession nonetheless.
I also recognize that Pope Pius XII made a similar acknowledgment in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. In it he acknowledged the scientific fact of polygenism and went on, in deference to science, to specifically abandon the disprovable Adam and Eve story of human origins. He also expressed openness to the legitimacy of the relatively early evolutionary science of the 1950’s. Of course he still held that God existed and endowed humans with a divine “soul.” Like the Dali Lama, he conceded to science on the disprovable parts while still falling back upon the un-disprovable beliefs as faith.
But I’ve never been an unqualified fan of a religious leader until now. Through his recent encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (found here), Pope Francis threaded essentially the same needle as these previous religious leaders. He acknowledged the irrefutability of established climate science while still clinging to his belief in god and souls. Like Pope Pius and the Dali Lama, he is rational enough to understand that religion is better served by deferring to science on matters of fact and that it is ultimately self-defeating both for the Church and for mankind to deny established science. Like those others he is also sophisticated enough to understand that the fundamental tenants of his faith can never be specifically disproven by science and that is enough for most believers. But unlike those others, he has gone far, far beyond merely acceding to science to embracing it in an active fashion.
Even given the widespread consensus on global climate change, Pope Francis was nevertheless frank and courageous in Laudato Si’. It takes courage for any leader to acknowledge the science of global climate change, to disavow the environmentally irresponsible worldviews held by many Christians today, and to call for deep changes to the status quo. This is a courage that many of our secular leaders still sadly lack. The Pope acknowledged that man is responsible for protecting the Earth, that we are responsible for catastrophic global climate change, that climate change endangers our very survival, and that it is our responsibility to fix it.
Following are some important points that I pulled from my reading of his encyclical:
- The Pope challenged us to “protect our common home,” entrusted to us by God.
- He discussed many real threats to the planet including “pollution, waste and a throwaway culture,” “the issue of water,” and “loss of biodiversity.”
- He pointed out that the climate is a “common good” that is “a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life.”
- He acknowledged that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”
- He acknowledged that all these things result in “global inequality” and a “decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society.”
- He acknowledged “the human roots of the ecological crisis.”
- He pointed out that our responses to these challenges so far have been “weak.”
- He challenged people who defend the status quo by rejecting “those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change.”
- He acknowledged the dangers of “misguided anthropocentrism” that places the gratification of mankind above all other considerations.
- He acknowledged the principle of the “common good” and called for “justice between the generations” which imposes a responsibility to pass along a habitable planet to future generations.
- He issued many calls for “dialog” and immediate action.
- He held that the role of religion is to “guide” science.
Although these may all seem like obvious points to some, it is critically important that the Pope made them. Many religious people still do not accept the 1950 encyclical regarding evolution and they are not likely to accept this encyclical on climate change, or our role in creating a sustainable planet, let alone our responsibility to respond to the social and ecological challenges we face. It is amazing to see the Pope and the Catholic Church taking such a strong leadership role for social justice and environmental sanity.
But it is important to also look at what the Pope did not say. Most noticeably, while he called for action by others, he did not so far lead by example with tangible actions within his power to initiate. I hope these kinds of actions are to come.
- He did not call for divestment from the fossil fuel industry and other environmentally irresponsible industries nor did he promise to do so with the reported $8B Vatican portfolio.
- He did not call for the extremely large worldwide Church infrastructure to “go green” and lower their very substantial carbon footprint.
- He did not specifically instruct his clergy to take tangible local action to promote a culture that helps to achieve the goals he outlines so passionately.
Less obviously but more notably, Pope Francis did not call for prayer as a solution to our environmental crisis. In fact, he only used the word “prayer” a few times in the entire encyclical and never in the context of a call to action. Instead he used the words “science” and “scientific” dozens of times in the context of providing real solutions.
Evidently even though the Pope supposedly believes in an active, caring, and omnipotent god, even he is not silly enough to rely upon the power of prayer when the outcome really matters.
I close with sincere thanks to Pope Francis. He is courageously using his bully pulpit in a responsible way that most secular leaders including President Obama have not. His strong statements regarding climate change in particular and social justice generally are desperately needed. I particularly appreciate his continuing calling out of “people, managers, businessmen who call themselves Christian and they manufacture weapons” as the immoral hypocrites that they are (see here).
Thanks Francis. You go Pope! Keep it up!