Tuesday 19. October 2021
#185 - September 2015

Is Pope Francis an environmental populist?

In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis directly links environmental questions with social questions, and calls into question the predominant role of market-based economics.

Few encyclicals have provoked as much reaction as Laudato Si’. Most people have given it a warm welcome, but its text has also provoked vitriolic opposition. Paul Kelly, an Australian freelance editor (The Australian, 24 June) does not mince his words: “Page after page [of the Encyclical] reveals Francis and his advisers as environmental populists and economic idealogues of a quasi-Marxist bent […] Francis is blind to the liberating power of markets and technology.” In the United States, many conservative commentators, including Catholics, share the same view.


What is there to be so angry about? Francis unmistakably emphases mankind’s responsibility for the deterioration of the climate and the dangers this creates for the future of humanity. He has also established a close link between environmental and social questions, calling into question the predominant role of market-based economics. He also challenges the prevailing belief that technology is the only thing that can save humanity.


Our common home

At the core of this encyclical letter lies the term “our common home”. A home provides the environment for the people who dwell there, an environment that should contribute to the happiness of all. The home is also the place where the inhabitants are supposed to live together in harmony.


Extremely serious threats are menacing humanity as a result of environmental degradation and climate deterioration. In a world marked by deep-seated injustice, it is the people who are weakest who are hit hardest by environment disasters and the likelihood of even more disasters will increase in the future. This situation is not the result of chance or of physical or economic pressures. It can be laid at the door of human beings. However, such situations are avoidable, therefore they can be changed: these changes too are in the hands of human beings. The text reveals a fundamental confidence in the positive resources of human beings: “We know that things can change […] Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.” (13) Every human being has “a right to life and happiness” (43) but “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” (48)


A “dominant technocratic paradigm” (101) opens up the way to “our unrestrained delusions of grandeur” (114) but it relies upon a practical relativism “which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests.” Therefore “environmental degradation and social degradation feed on each other” (122). “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” (139)


A cultural revolution

Several major political decisions have to be taken. The system must be changed. But political changes are not possible in a democratic society without the support of the electorate. What is needed here is a cultural conversion, both ethical and spiritual in equal measure. Every person should want to care for the common home.


With these considerations in mind, Laudato Si’ puts forward two leading ideas [guiding concepts]: the common good and interdependence. Regarding the common good, the goal is that everybody can and should be happy, not finding themselves forced to endure inhumane living conditions resulting either from environmental or climate circumstances or because of intolerable poverty and inequality. This common good affects future generations too, everybody alive today as much as everybody who will be alive tomorrow. “No man is an island”, (John Donne 1572 - 1631) nor do human communities live isolated on an island: there is always some form of interdependence. Decisions taken locally by people and by communities will have repercussions on the whole of humanity living in the present and in the future.


By publishing Laudato Si’, Pope Francis speaks officially for the Church in society. He has consulted a well-reputed group of experts in order to analyse the present (see) and to determine the deepseated causes of the situation (judge), hence comes his call for political action that will be both concrete and urgent, stressing that this must be done through motivating people in order to avoid violence (act). Hearts must be converted if we are to have a future with justice and peace for everyone. That is also the message of the Gospel.


Ignace Berten o.p

Dominican friar, member of the international community of Saint Dominic in Brussels

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