God's Climate: the Pope and His Doomed Encyclical

Moses Seenarine (6.25.15)
Reprinted on OpEdNews, June 30, 2015)

Abrupt climate change is a looming catastrophe, if not one already. Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has stretched the Earth's capacity to such an extent that it can only cause more catastrophes as those that have already occur in different parts of the world. The effects of continued devastation can only be reduced by prompt and decisive action.

To avoid the inevitable catastrophes, humans need to make a massive effort to collectively halt and reverse the effects of greenhouse gas pollution. Though the challenges appear insurmountable, a greener Earth may be possible through societies that are renewable, egalitarian, cooperative, and plant-based, which would allow for the extensive reforestation necessary. Humans around the globe need to understand our dire state of affairs, to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.

The situation is serious and it is a positive sign that the current Pope is trying to raise the climate alarm to his flock of 1.2 billion Catholics. Pope Francis's 183-page encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si (Praised Be), released on June 18, 2015, discusses the environmental crisis, the immorality of capitalism, and argues for economic and cultural equality. Nor surprisingly, the Pontiff's 38,000-word document was immediately rejected by conservatives who characterized him as a socialist. But Pope Francis is no maverick. In 1971, Pope Paul VI discussed social inequality and the ecological crisis, and these two themes have remained central to the Vatican ever since.

What's new is the Pope's use of social media, and his 17-word tweet, "The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” was sent to 6.4 million followers, and re-tweeted 30,000 times. This tweet was included in more than 430,000 articles, and used in many headlines. While the Pontiff's use of social media is laudable, his discussion of equity and the poor is akin to the Queen of England talking about austerity while sitting on a gold throne.

With the Pope focus on renewable energy as a solution, his holiness neglects to mention the Church's own possible investments in fossil fuels, or the Church's carbon footprint. Further, the Vatican document does not acknowledge the significance of diet and personal choice among Church functionaries and its 1.2 billion members, who will continue to cause rapid warming if they do not change their over-consumption habits.

Some environmentalists and the church's faithful will argue that the publicity and 'good' parts of the document far outweighs its negative attributes. However, if the encyclical's purpose is to stop and reverse humans' catastrophic impact on the planet, then it falls way short of owning up to its own faults. In addition, the church's regressive reproductive polices and restrictions of female choice reinforces the inter-related population and environmental crisis caused by a rapidly growing middle class and their over-consumption.

The Hypocrisy of Wealth and Equity

Pope Francis's encyclical argues that there is a great need for developing a sense of values and social responsibility on the part of consumers. He states, “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act” and that “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.” However, the Pope's is deeply contradictory and omits the Church's own lack of values, lifestyle and culpability in capitalist exploitation.

For example, the American Catholic Church paid out more than $3 billion for sexual-abuse cases, and Church officials have not fully acknowledged their decades of abuse of children. A lot of the Church's own money is wasted and enormous assets are being hoarded, rather than being used to reduce the gross inequality he decries. Despite widespread charges of pedophilia, the Church remains widely popular and is far from broke.

Money flows in from individual donations from Catholics, government grants, the church's own investments and corporate donors. The average American Catholic donates around $10 each week, which adds up to $850m through individual donations weekly.

According to the Economist, the American Catholic Church is as rich as any large multinational corporation. In 2010, the American Catholic Church, which has the fourth largest follower base by country, behind Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines, spent $170bn on healthcare, schools and parishes. And, Catholic Charities USA distributed $4.7 billion to the poor, of which 62% came from local, state and federal government agencies. In comparison, in 2010, General Electric’s revenue was $150 billion.

The Catholic Church in Europe, Latin America and Africa are probably as wealthy as the American Catholic Church, and they all contribute to the Vatican. With its two thousand years of wealth, the Vatican admits that it even has hundreds of millions of Euros stashed off of its balance sheet. The Holy See has gold-laden palatial church property and priceless works of art by Michelangelo, Raphael and others. It owns a global network of churches and religious buildings, many of which contain precious historical treasures. The Vatican Bank manages $7.3bn of assets and over $1bn of equity it owns, and it keeps gold reserves worth over $20m with the US Federal Reserve.

In his encyclical, the Pope laments over the weak responses to global inequality, but given its vast wealth and leverage, the Catholic Church could have done a lot more to address and alleviate global poverty, since Pope Paul VI stated to champion the cause in 1971. The Church could have used a small part of its enormous net worth to pay for restitution and reparations for some of the damage caused to thousands of Indigenous nations during the last 200 years, but it did not. So, the Church itself is part of the weak response.

The Pope cries out for the loss of biodiversity and breakdown in human society, but neglects to inform his audience that the Church itself has played a huge role in Western colonization and development from the start, 500 years ago, and throughout the Industrial Revolution. For two hundred years and more, Catholic Priests have served to opened up countless routes and paved the way for hundreds of Western companies involved in resource extraction. And, male clergy are still being dispatched to “save” indigenous groups with gospel. Given his unwillingness to re-distribute the Church's vast assets, it is hypocritical for the Pope to blame corporations, many of which are far less wealthy, for hoarding and perpetuating economic inequality.

Furthermore, since the Church's financial portfolios are professionally managed, they are probably deeply invested in the same destructive corporations that the Vatican blames for the immoral exploitation of nature. After a century of profiting from fossil fuel, a few Protestant institutions are now divesting and encouraging their members to do the same. However, the Pope has not called on the Church or Catholics to divest, and the Vatican itself may still be heavily invested in fossil fuels and other extraction industries. There is limited disclosure and the Church's financial investments remain a huge mystery.

Interestingly, although the encyclical has sections on pollution, climate change and water use, it does not address the Church, Vatican and Pope's own consumerism and over-consumption, or their carbon and water footprints which are substantial. The encyclical states, “An awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits.” And the Pope argues for a new conviction based on “less is more.” However, the Church's lavish and wasteful traditions are left entirely unexamined.

The Pontiff wants us all to avoid the use of plastic and paper, reduce water consumption, separate refuse, cook only what can reasonably be consumed, use public transport or car-pooling, plant trees, and turn off unnecessary lights, but the Church itself is not setting a good example. For example, there are thousands of church buildings completely empty except for Sundays, which are maintained year-round for no productive purpose.

Further, millions of gallons of fuel are wasted each Sunday by the faithful driving to and from Church to participate in pointless rituals and lectures on wastefulness. The vast network of Churches expends little effort in organizing car-pools for its flock or others. Furthermore, millions of Catholics from across the globe visit the Vatican via carbon-intensive air travel, which the Pope himself uses and does not discourage. And, apart from their daily upkeep, the Pontiff and his entourage requires massive security operations to ensure their safety during their numerous fund-raising trips across the world. Given their possible fossil fuel investments and enormous carbon footprints, it is somewhat hypocritical for the Church to lecture others on climate change.

Objectifying Nature as Property

Francis's encyclical tries to address the ideological cause of environmental destruction, however, it does so in a contradictory way. While he rightfully blames the rapid exploitation and pollution of the Earth on the dominant technocratic paradigm, he neglects to mention that this process is also gendered. The Pope observes, “In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish... Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years."

Pope Francis even hints at the objectification of nature and nonhuman animals when he writes, “Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape.” However, he omits the role of Abrahamic religion in shaping the dominant anthropocentric worldview.

To counter this utilitarian and instrumentalist view of reality and nature, the Pontiff argues, "We are not God. The Earth was here before us and was given to us." These two sentences acknowledges human's lack of ownership of nature, however they reinforce the notion that the Earth is property, and specifically the property of a mysterious sky god.

Conveniently for Pope Francis, the entire planet is under the purview of god's main representative on Earth, himself. With the Church's continued assertion of heavenly ownership, the autonomy of nonhuman animals and nature, and that of the entire Earth, are exorcised and usurped by the Church. It was this illusion of divine gifting to men which justified their objectification and technocratic destruction of nature in the first place, and it continues to justify men's exploitation and domination.

Pope Francis also refers to the Earth as a sister to man, which is characterized by one writer as ecofeminist philosophy. The Pontiff writes of the Earth, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

Given his reinforcement of man's dominion over the Earth, the Pope's characterization represents a negative feminizing of the Earth as "sister" and "mother." This narrative is part of a spirit and matter dualism in Western culture, in which nature is feminine and 'spirit' is masculine. His false equivalency ignores the power of the Earth to endure mankind's destruction, and the precariousness of human existence in comparison.

Another contradictory way the encyclical discusses the root cause of environmental destruction relates to the Pope's self-serving social and psychological analysis. Pope Francis and his predecessors have repeatedly stated that the natural environment is been gravely damaged by humans' irresponsible behavior. Moreover, they relate the natural destruction to an equally damaged social and family environment.

The Pontiffs all place blame for centuries of male violence and distruction on human 'sin' and lack of faith in god, and, all too conveniently, on humans' lack of faith in god's chosen representatives enshrined in the Church. For example, Pope Benedict argued that environmental and social problems are “ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.” He continues, “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.”

And Francis's encyclical concludes that the best way to restore men and women to their rightful place as part of nature, and to end men's claim of absolute dominion over the earth, is “to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world.” Otherwise, he argues, “human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.”

Francis also blames environmment and social destruction on rampant individualism, consumerism, and the culture of relativism. He argues "we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures." However, the Church's framing of nature as creation is a fundamental part of "dominion theology" and its' inherent master-enslaved ethic. Far from being an outright rejection of dominionism, the Pope's pleading for more enlightened stewardship is based on its continued propagation.

His Holiness decries the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, yet the Church refuses to use any of its considerable resources for conservation and reforestation. For example, a few of its valuable paintings or works of art could be used to preserve millions of trees and lives. A few more paintings could be used to start environmental literacy programs, and renewable energy initiatives. The Church's hoarding in the face of a crisis that Pope Francis himself admits is dire, sends the message that art and property are valued over climate and survival. In any case, as climate chaos worsens, all of their priceless art will become worthless.

Significantly, the church's views of stewardship are similar to the instrumentalist views of nature held by early 20th century environmental conservationists. Both have failed to stop the strictly utilitarian and profit-driven incentives of livestock production. Moreover, the church's patriarchal objectification and placement of ownership of nature outside of the Earth justifies their continued capitalist exploitation by paradoxically removing agency from humans and the planet, which contradicts the Earth's autonomy and sacredness.

Church of Misogyny and Denialism

Among the 246 separate paragraphs and points raised in the encyclical, the Holy See discusses inequality in terms of employment, culture and many other aspects. Conspicuously absent from the entire document are references to sexual inequality and female oppression. The Vatican acts as if the patriarchy is a feminist myth, and their text refers only to 'humans,' or 'men and women,' in generic terms.

The Church's denial of the specificity of human domination as primarily male violence, grants all the male perpetrators a free pass and covers up the historical significance of 5,000 years of patriarchy. Even worse, Pope Francis repeatedly linked women's reproductive choice to environmental destruction and climate change. For example, he contends, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.”

In another instance, Pope Francis suggests, “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” And later, the Pontiff argues, “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”

By victim-blaming women's limited liberation and freedom for environmental destruction and climate change, this encyclical not only reinforces patriarchy, it shows that the Church remains regressive and deeply misogynist. Male domination of women and nature is the central problem, with deep historical roots. Climate literacy must include this essential patriarchal power dynamic in order to be effective, and this encyclical fails to do so.

The Pontiff can be accused of being a Luddite in his condemnation of “technoscience and the globalization of the technocratic paradigm.” He frankly admits, “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” But the Church is part of this power group.

And in regards to the immense power of techoscience in the form of nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, and genetics, Pope Francis notes that there is a tendency to believe that every increase in men's power over nature means an increase of ‘progress’ itself and an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour.” However, the Vatican is not so much opposed to an increase in men's technological power as they are to men's lack of faith and spiritual might in being able to control and use their new abilities for the greater good of all.

In regards to individual animals, the Pope contends, "each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous." He even admits that every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity.” Yet the encyclical remains completely silent on the suffering of billions of animals exploited in factory farms, and greenhouse gas emissions of animal-based diets, which are a leading cause of ecological destruction and climate change.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, headquartered in Rome, has acknowledged the significance of livestock's greenhouse gas emissions and contributions to climate change, but the Vatican refused to call out the animal carcass, dairy and egg industries. The UNDP and other agencies have shown how destructive livestock production is to forests, savannas, soil, biodiversity, water and the ocean, but the encyclical remains completely silent on this issue.

Perhaps, the Vatican's denialism is due in part to investments in the livestock industry, and to their fear of a public backlash from the masses if they raise this inconvenient and unpopular truth. The Pope and the Church argues on the one hand for animal rights, and on the other, they reinforce speciesism and carnism as natural, normal and necessary.

The encyclical is wary of genetically modified crops, and states, “In various countries, we see an expansion of oligopolies for the production of cereals and other products needed for their cultivation. This dependency would be aggravated were the production of infertile seeds to be considered; the effect would be to force farmers to purchase them from larger producers.” However, the Pope omits that almost all of these cereals are used to feed animals exploited by the livestock industry. His admonitions over consumerism and selfish habits do not extend to personal choice in diet, or to the consequences for individual and planetary health.

As part of raising ecological awareness of the root causes of climate change, the Pope's encyclical is far worse than a futile exercise in morality. Its hypocritical discussion of inequality, objectification of nature as property, victim-blaming of women, and denial of unsustainable dietary habits are all regressive and obstructionist. Yet, we live in neoliberal times with hegemonic military, economic, media and cultural power. As horrible as it is, the Pope's encyclical represents one of the most progressive forms of resistance and activism on climate change. The fact that is it so deeply flawed does not give much hope for addressing the dire consequences of abrupt climate change.  

Dr. Moses Seenarine is a plant-based father and activist, founder of Climate Change 911, and the author of Voices from the Subaltern (2004), Meat Climate Change (2016), and "Who's (h)eating earth?" (Forthcoming).