Rereading Francis

By David Mills
June 19, 2015

“Not better than many of us expected,” I tweeted back to a journalist who’d written that Laudato Si is “bigger—and better—than we expected.” CatholicCulture.org’s Phil Lawler should have said, I think, “some expected,” because he wrote an excellent summary and appreciation of the encyclical, The Challenge of Laudato Si. I commend it, as well as Eleven Things You Probably Won’t Hear About the Pope’s Encyclical from The Stream (of which I’m a senior editor).

Reading the Catholic responses and reactions to the encyclical, I think one of its main results may be to quiet many of those who since the beginning of his papacy have spoken of him with a peevish and often patronizing spirit. They fret about nearly everything he says and does. He has his implacable critics, for whom nothing short of his becoming a near-Lefebvreite and/or an American libertarian will do. Others, having wrung their hands, or licked their chops, in anticipation that Laudato Si would prove their pessimism right, seem to feel a little chastened. Some of those, we can hope, will have learned their lesson.

One line used to criticize Francis, which I saw in emails as soon as the subject of the encyclical was announced, has been to lament his failing to write on the persecution of Christians. “While the Holy Father has spoken eloquently about the present genocide of Christians in the Middle East,” writes Fr. George Rutler in his inevitably elegant way, “those who calculate priorities would have hoped for an encyclical about this fierce persecution, surpassing that of the emperor Decius. Pictures of martyrs being beheaded, gingerly filed away by the media, give the impression that their last concern on earth was not climate fluctuations.”

I normally read Fr. Rutler with pleasure, but this, I’m afraid, is a cheap shot. None of us, should we be blessed to be awake as we’re dying, will be thinking about the weather, but those we love and leave behind will care about it a great deal—especially if it gets worse, as the majority of scientists seem to say.

They may be wrong—I am completely agnostic on the matter, as is Phil Lawler—but if they are right our effects on the climate require us to act and Francis is right to urge the world to act. In either case, that particular question is not the point nor the meat of the encyclical, which would remain true were the earth staying the same temperature for decades on end. What he says the Church and world very much need to hear, whatever the final judgment on the science. See the two articles linked at the beginning.

Maybe, just maybe, some portion of the Holy Father’s committed critics will reconsider their habitual suspicion. It sometimes happens in normal life that finding you were wrong about a great anxiety leads you to see that you don’t need to be afraid in the future. And perhaps actually reading Laudato Si may convince them to look to Francis with the filial trust they once gave Benedict. Francis, after all, is only saying what “the green pope” Benedict said or would say. The Church will gain if they do.