“When the President met the Pope at the Vatican, last week, it was as if theywere members of different species, so far apart in values and style that the actual content of what separated them proved elusive. Francis slyly presented Trump with a gift, though, that—as of yesterday—defines their opposition as absolute. The gift was a copy of his encyclical on climate change, ‘Laudato Si’.’ Trump politely promised to read it. Sure.
In withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, the President demolished everything that the 2015 papal declaration represents. On this, the day after Trump’s decision, ‘Laudato Si’ ’ is more important than ever. A blistering indictment of the human failure to care for Earth, it is also a poignant description of the momentous choice now confronting every government, corporation, and person on the planet. Trump may not have read it, but everyone who seeks to understand in explicit terms the depth of the danger he represents should. ‘Laudato Si’ ’ is a manifesto. If you read it two years ago, read it again now.
The encyclical is a clear reckoning with the multifaceted climate crisis. Francis describes Earth as ‘an immense pile of filth’ and mourns ‘the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species’ each year, ‘lost forever’; he calls access to clean water ‘a basic and universal human right’ and notes the link between ‘current models of development and the throwaway culture’; he recognizes the ‘very solid scientific consensus’ that global warming has human causes and the ‘ecological debt’ that the global North, after centuries of market plunder and pollution, owes the less industrialized South. All of this, Pope Francis declares, causes ‘Sister Earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course.’
But the dangerously degraded planet, for Francis, is a manifestation of a deeper problem, for ‘we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.’ Though the Pope would not say so, Trump is an embodiment of the moral pollution that generates atmospheric pollution, a sign that something has gone gravely wrong in the way we humans relate to one another. Trump, the compulsive tweeter, is a product and exploiter of the digital overload that generates, in Francis’s words, ‘a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature,’ that leaves us blocked from ‘direct contact with the pain, fears, and the joys of others.’ The disorder is widespread; when the President divides the world between winners and losers, many people agree with him. The Paris accord, which upholds the ideal of human solidarity, rejected this paradigm, which, ultimately, is why its maestro rejected Paris. But the zero-sum mode of organizing life—personally and internationally—brings nothing except death, and the planet is telling us so.
Unlike most environmentalists, Francis locates the heart of climate degradation in the economic and social degradation of human beings. As the inverter of hierarchies, he views every problem through the lens of those on the bottom. It is not enough to save Earth. Francis criticizes ‘economists, financiers, and experts in technology’ who, using ‘green rhetoric,’ promote the eco-capitalism and technoscience that might clean the water and the air, or cope with rising sea levels, but would still preserve the cult of unlimited growth, promote open-ended consumption, reinforce an inequitable distribution of goods, and protect a market economy that continues to ravage the poor—an approach that ‘leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.’
Imagine Donald Trump using the phrase ‘civic and political love.’ Yet that defines the prescription Pope Francis offers after his stark and unyielding diagnosis. ‘We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, that being good and decent are worth it,’ he writes. ‘We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith, and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good.’
For Francis, as a religious man, the love of one’s neighbor is the surest sign of God’s presence. But his invitation is profoundly secular, for his critique of the shrunken circles of love that reduce family, tribe, and nation to shelters from the larger human commonwealth has everything to do with this world, not the next. This world’s value is absolute. If the rescue of our one and only heaven requires economic, psychological, political, and spiritual revolutions—or, rather, one revolution combining all of those—then let’s be about it. That is the message of this encyclical, the gift."