Rorate Caeli

Laudate Deum and the Eclipse of the Church

What to make of Pope Francis's latest apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum? Like other Francis encyclicals, it is hardly recognizable as a Catholic document. The central portion of the letter addresses the "progress and failures" of various "climate conferences" held in the last decades. It features an entire section vaguely prognosticating on a upcoming conference in Dubai. 

As this description suggests, Laudate Deum is single-mindedly materialistic and lacks any supernatural focus. Its political arguments are naive, abstract, and self-contradictory. It endorses a global coalition of "activists" who will put "pressure" on national governments in service of a single world government. This secular world government will have "real authority" to punish those who defy it. In the spirit of "hagan lio," then, Laudate Deum seems to endorse splashy climate activism of the type that blocks public roads and defaces works of art.  Ultimately, its political recommendations will be ignored, because they are not useful or insightful.  

Without any hint of irony, Francis endorses the American politician Rahm Emanuel's shameless quip, "Never let a crisis go to waste." Says Francis, "It continues to be regrettable that global crises are being squandered when they could be the occasions to bring about beneficial changes. This is what happened in the 2007-2008 financial crisis and again in the Covid-19 crisis." It would be crass for a politician to talk this way, let alone a Pope. And the implication of these words is even more sinister: that the authoritarian tactics that emerged in the face of both crises might usefully be extended into the future, except this time in service of global climate goals. 

Similarly, Laudate Deum dismisses "efforts at adaptation" and "new technical interventions" to mitigate climate issues as forms of "homicidal pragmatism," an overwrought, unfortunate and unhelpful turn of phrase in service of an unrealistic and unscientific pessimism.

Laudate Deum has a decidedly populist, anti-American pitch to it. It praises the poor and the Third World and denounces "the Western model."  Indeed, in its rush to condemn Americans, it contains an embarrassing mathematical error. It claims that the "emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China." But the document it cites shows that the per capital emissions of Americans are only 43% higher than Chinese.

Grandiosely, the letter is pitched to "all people of good will." In the one part that speaks of "spiritual motivations" for the political activism he wishes people to undertake, Francis is careful to address not just "the Catholic faithful" but also "my brothers and sisters of other religions." The encyclical cites no previous pope other than a 1970 address from Paul VI. And yet the few people who read Laudate Deum will likely be Catholics. Recognizing this, Francis finds time for a swipe at his fellow Catholics, condemning "certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church." (Internet commentator Tony Annett speculates that this is a swipe at the late Cardinal Pell, whom Annett claims "was a leading climate change denier.")

That brings us to a final point. Some have condemned Laudate Deum for repositioning the Church as an NGO. But the truth is even worse than that. A previous pope sincerely animated by climate issues would have identified a distinctively Catholic basis for concern. He then would have mobilized the Church's own institutions, bishops, priests, and laypeople to address climate change. But Laudate Deum is so single-mindedly secular, populist, and globalist that it cannot even begin to imagine the Church making a difference. We know that Christ created his Church to save souls. But Francis envisions U.N. agencies, climate conferences, and secular activists as the agents who will "avoid an increase of a tenth of a degree in the global temperature"-- not the Church. Individual people "of faith" may have "spiritual motivations" for participating in this multi-cultural, multi-national climate movement, but the Church herself is assigned no distinctive role in bringing about decreases in global emissions. Instead, change will come "from major political decisions on the national and international level," and it will be imposed by a world government with coercive authority.

Ultimately, Laudate Deum underscores the diminished state of the Church and the papacy under Francis-- reduced to watching, prognosticating and criticizing instead of blessing, healing or saving.