|The New Yorker
A Papal Message That Spares No One
BY ELIZABETH KOLBERT
Deep in Hell, in the ninth ring of the eighth circle, Dante encounters a group of souls who have gone to pieces. One is slit “from the chin right down to where men fart”; his entrails dangle between his legs. A second, whose hands have been lopped off, gestures with gory stumps. A third holds his own severed head by the hair. These were, in life, sowers of discord, who, for the divisions they created, will spend eternity hacked into bits. “In me you may observe fit punishment,” the severed head helpfully points out.
The subcircle of the schismatics came to mind this week, when someone—presumably a Vatican insider—leaked a copy of Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change and the environment three days before its official release. The leaked document appeared on the Web site of the Italian weekly L’Espresso on Monday, with a brief introduction that declared, triumphantly, “Here it is.”
The whodunit story of how the magazine obtained the document quickly edged out coverage of the encyclical itself, which, at that point, most of the world couldn’t read, because only the Italian version had been posted. The Turin daily La Stampa described the episode as a giallo—Italian shorthand for a detective novel. Whoever had passed along the Pope’s letter, the newspaper speculated, had a “double goal”: to undermine the message of the encyclical and to undermine Pope Francis. Vatican officials asked journalists from other publications to refrain from reporting on the version released by L’Espresso, a request that the majority pointedly ignored.
The encyclical, which is titled “Laudato si’ ”—“Be Praised,” a line borrowed from “The Canticle of the Sun,” a poem attributed to the Pope’s namesake, St. Francis—was finally officially released Thursday, as planned, in Rome. (It was very similar to the leaked version.) The Vatican made available translations not just in English but also in German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Though a work built, like Dante’s, around the ideal of love (in the English version, the word “love” appears sixty-seven times), “Laudato si’ ” is, at the same time, an unsparing indictment of just about every aspect of modern life. And though its focus is on man’s relationship to nature, it also has much to say about man’s relationship to his fellow man and to himself—little of it laudatory. The vision that Pope Francis offers in his encyclical is of a world spiralling toward disaster, in which people are too busy shopping and checking their cell phones to do, or even care, much about it.
“The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes,” the Pope writes. At another point, he says, “Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is.”
According to Francis, the problems of environmental degradation and global poverty are intimately related. Both can be traced to a way of thinking that regards the world as a means, rather than an end. This way of thinking rules the marketplace—“Finance overwhelms the real economy”—and dominates our data-driven culture: “Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic.”
“Laudato si’ ” is clearly aimed at influencing the international climate negotiations that are currently under way, intended to produce an agreement on curbing global emissions by the end of this year. Pope Francis declares the climate to be “a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” and endorses the “very solid scientific consensus” that humans, by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, are responsible for “a disturbing warming.”
In general, the encyclical has been applauded by environmentalists, who have hailed it as a potential breakthrough. “World leaders of all dispositions should find inspiration in his words,” the campaign Go Fossil Free declared on its Web site. Meanwhile, even before it came out, the encyclical was being criticized by some Republican politicians, including Jeb Bush, a convert to Catholicism, who said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Tuesday, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” But there is something in the hundred and eighty pages of the encyclical to dismay just about everyone, including many of those who agree with the Pope that climate change is an urgent concern.
The pontiff chides those who argue for bringing down birth rates, even though population growth is clearly one of the major drivers of emissions. Meanwhile, he rejects the tools that many environmentalists, and almost all economists, argue would be the most effective at curbing climate change. He criticizes the idea of a carbon tax, saying that such a levy would impose unfair burdens on the poor, and also deplores the idea of a global cap-and-trade system.
“This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require,” he writes. What the Pope seems to be endorsing instead is large payments to developing countries to help them finance clean-energy systems, and dramatic cuts in consumption in developed countries. How these cuts are to be effected he leaves unspecified. In an echo of Jimmy Carter, he urges those in the global North to put on a sweater.
“A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment,” Francis writes.
Whether the Pope’s message will have any influence—on the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, on the delegations currently trying to devise an international climate agreement, or on anyone else—remains to be seen. Up to now, the sowers of discord have done a good job blocking action on climate change, and, if the leak of the encyclical is any guide, they are still hard at work. Meanwhile, as @Pontifex tweeted to his 6.3 million followers Thursday, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”