Without Cleaning House the Pope Can’t Clear the Air
Pope Francis is a pungent preacher. His blunt rhetoric has electrified the world and effectively changed the church’s image from moribund to rejuvenated just as I suspect he was elected to do. The narrative has been extensively revamped.
But preaching doesn’t go as far as it once did without something to back it up. Not that long ago, a pope’s admonitions were enough. If Pius XII had decided to add a fishless Tuesday to the discipline in 1949, chances are that his word alone would have won overwhelming compliance. No more. Catholics like their fellow citizens are far less willing to obey authority on its face.
To win over audiences, preachers of reform are much more likely to succeed by admitting that their own houses have contributed to the crisis and that they are determined to do something about it.
Francis’ diagnosis and prescriptions, compelling as they are, need persuasive confession that the church itself has been a polluter and a profiteer in the building of the fossil fuel empire. So far as I can tell, the church’s implicit collusion in damaging the climate never enters into the pope’s encyclical. Neither does any indication that the Vatican will back up his eloquent alarm by divesting the portion of its estimated $8 billion bank account that’s tied up in global oil.
The pope’s primary target is understandably the international stage on which ruin is threatened by energy desperation. He looks at the heart of that organism and finds a daemonic darkness that stands in contrast to the ebullient apostle he usually displays. At the same time, the church represents a third or so of the global population and cannot be separated from the economic and social mechanisms that have propelled the fossil fuel madness. His prophetic encyclical would in my view carry enormously greater weight if it were accompanied by a pledge to curb the church of its own ecologically exploitative practices and demonstrate that it is serious about it by taking its money out of the generators of disaster.
To its credit, the Vatican itself has under Francis’ guidance trimmed its fuel consumption and turned key functions over to alternative energy. Its a good model. At the same time, there are countless practitioners of “green” policies who continue to collect fat profits from big oil. Gaining praise for public behavior has much to be said for it, but continuing to lend financial beef to the industry whose influence dwarfs all private practices put together fosters the kind of hypocrisy that stalls or thwarts any kind of real reform. Universities are struggling with this, pitting money making against climate disaster. Several religious groups have divested, among them the World Council of Churches.
Francis has rendered the world a noble service by going as far as he did. Taking the next step — refusing to finance fossil fuel production and renouncing a list of anti-environmental activities in which it has participated — would give it greater clout.