Can a tough pope be the climate's bouncer?

PoulsonTeachBy David Poulson
St. Francis of Assisi is often depicted as a figurine – a gentle man with birds on his shoulders and rabbits at his feet.
I like the irony that the pope who took his name was once a barroom bouncer.
That isn’t to imply Pope Francis favors physical force for resolving conflict. Good bouncers convince unruly patrons to behave – or leave – without lifting a finger.
The best make them think it’s their idea.

With the recent release of Laudato Si, this pope proved he’s no porcelain treehugger. He framed climate change – and the environment generally – as a moral issue central to the faith of Catholics.
We’re not talking about communing peacefully with woodland creatures.
Here’s a taste of a tough-talking pope:

  • “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.”
  • “People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more.”
  • “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
  • “Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

Is this encyclical thing a big deal? It seems like it.
It contains the words of the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. And they and non-Catholics are listening. Some are impressed; others are outraged.
His critics complain that the pope needs to stick to his own domain – to stay out of science and economics. Of course his message inevitably got intertwined with presidential politics.
For a news guy like me, this kind of conflict is all good.
How about for a Catholic like me?
I was disappointed last Saturday night when I went to Mass and the priest didn’t bring the pope’s message up. I went to another parish Sunday morning – again, not a mention of the pope and his encyclical. I tried again Sunday night in yet another town – nothing.
Lest you think that I am an especially good Catholic, I confess that the services I attended last weekend don’t begin to make up for the weekends when I’ve missed them all.
This wasn’t zealotry. I was genuinely interested in the local leadership’s take on what the faith’s top guy – well, near top guy – had to say. And I was surprised – disappointed – to hear nothing from a parish priest.
To be fair, they had plenty of other material. This was the weekend after the South Carolina church shootings. And it was Father’s Day – I hope my parenting skills can live up to three separate paternal blessings.
Yet for priests who were inclined, the weekend’s Gospel reading served up a fat pitch that they could have hit out of the climate change ballpark. To paraphrase: Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee when a fierce storm brews up. Jesus has fallen asleep, but the disciples wake him, convinced they will perish.
Jesus calms the sea and wind and then asks his disciples, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”
So the story of the storm is ripe for talking about fears of a warming climate expected to spawn more such storms. And it indicates the power of faith to address those fears. You just have to have faith.
Problem solved? Not so easy.
I consulted the best theologian that I know – my wife, a volunteer teacher of children’s religious education and vacation bible school. She reminded me that you have to read each Gospel in the context of the others.
Faith isn’t a passive activity, she said. It requires action.
That passage about the Golden Rule? It seems to fit this situation. And it’s not an easy one to implement, especially on a global scale.
Is the pope’s entry into climate wars a game changer? Maybe. My experience with the local priesthood shouldn’t be overly construed as a lack of clerical interest. The Catholics have a robust climate movement rooted in social justice. So do leaders and scientists in many other religions. And so do non-believers.
Perhaps this spark provided by this most unusual pope will energize, unify and grow their numbers.
Here’s what else he had to say: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start…”
There is a new bouncer in the barroom brawl of environmental conflict. Let’s hope he can help us realize it’s our idea, and in our best interests, to choose what is good.
This is one club we cannot afford to get kicked out of.
David Poulson is the senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and editor of Great Lakes Echo where this column first appeared.