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The experience of living through a particular time period can, of course, be quite different from a retrospective look back on the same period. The Beatles produced and released more than a dozen albums with original material between 1964 and 1970. For even the most devoted fans, the musical developments between the albums might have been almost imperceptible at the time. But reflecting now on the six-year time-lapse between the release of Meet the Beatles and the recording of Abbey Road, the two LPs were clearly introduced into two very different cultural worlds—due in no small part to the contributions of the Fab Four themselves.
Pope Francis’s much-heralded apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum arrived in October on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a bit more than eight years after the publication of his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ and in the final quarter of the planet’s warmest year on record. The texts reach a similar audience and are ostensibly about the same topic: our duty to care for God’s creation amid a climate crisis caused by the historical lack of such care. It is a bit of a “sequel,” no doubt, and the pontiff quotes extensively from his own earlier work to reiterate numerous points. But it’s not, as many anticipated, a simple admonition to act on the call of Laudato si’. Yes, the pope concedes “that our responses have not been adequate”; that “the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point”; and that the clean-energy transition “is not progressing at the necessary speed.” But Francis is not speaking as a frustrated parent telling their child, “I told you to clean your room days ago; now look at this mess.”
For one thing, the pope acknowledges, if only implicitly, that he too may have underestimated the urgency of the situation in Laudato si’: “we are presently experiencing…an unusual acceleration of warming,” he writes, “at such a speed that it will take only one generation—not centuries or millennia—in order to verify it.” Things are, it seems, moving faster and more perilously than even Pope Francis himself imagined in 2015. What’s more, new threats that weren’t at the forefront of concern in 2015, including pandemics and runaway generative artificial intelligence, threaten to exacerbate the human and environmental crisis. And, perhaps most importantly, the approach governments, corporations, and international bodies have taken to solve the climate crisis is proving ineffective. In other words, the crisis, as Pope Francis sees it today, is of a different character than it was in 2015. It requires an even more urgent response, to be sure, but also a more nuanced one, attuned to the failures of the intervening years.
Laudato si’ was not the first expression of environmental concern to emerge from the Vatican, and one needn’t read very far into the text to find Pope Francis citing previous pontiffs with exhortations every bit as urgent as his own. One thing that’s changed during Francis’s papacy, however, is the politicization of environmental issues within the Church. Few if any conservatives—Catholic or otherwise—accused Pope John Paul II of harboring communist sympathies when he lamented in his first encyclical that many people “see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” The Right was similarly unfazed when Pope Benedict XVI proposed in a 2007 address to the Holy See’s diplomatic corps the idea of “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.” Pope Francis, however, in citing these two ideals in Laudato si’, apparently crossed a line. Within months of the encyclical’s 2015 publication, the late Rush Limbaugh was reporting to his listeners (few of whom, presumably, ever read the document) that “every other word seems to be about how unfettered capitalism is destroying the world” and positioning the pontiff on the far left of his rather peculiar political spectrum: “I mean, that’s—call it what you want—Marxism, socialism, what have you.”
This hostile political response from outside the Church galvanized opposition to the pope and his message within the Church. Laudato si’ was an introduction to climate concerns for a host of Catholics previously indifferent to the issue, and many received the encyclical warmly. But among the Church’s more conservative parishioners, it arguably seeded a new cadre of climate deniers. Climate became another arrow in their quiver to aim at a pope they thought was leading the Church away from traditional teaching. In a homily the day after Laudate Deum’s publication, I referred to the Lukan Gospel reading for the day and tied it to the freshly minted document. This elicited an angry phone call to the church office two hours later complaining that “the priest at the morning Mass was talking about politics.”
Pope Francis is not naïve to the fact that the association of “care for creation” with “collectivism” has invaded Catholic thinking and undermined his earlier message. “I feel obliged to make these clarifications, which may appear obvious,” he notes in Laudate Deum, “because of certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church.”
Available evidence suggests that Pope Francis is not overestimating the reach of his critics. A recent survey report from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that, while three quarters of Hispanic Catholic Americans agree that “climate change is caused mostly by human activity” (in line with religiously unaffiliated Americans), just over half of white Catholics do. This is hardly surprising, given the reticence of the U.S. bishops as a body to support the pontiff on climate concerns. A 2021 report for Environmental Research Letters notes that Laudato si’ has rarely been mentioned in their public preaching and writing—and that when it is, it’s disparaged, distanced from the particular prelate’s own views, or cherry-picked for corroboration with an unrelated position.
More so than its predecessor, Laudate Deum is addressed to “all people of good will,” not just Catholics. Indeed, the document reads somewhat less like a papal statement on “care for creation” than a well-crafted article from Foreign Affairs on civil and governmental misdirection in addressing an increasingly pernicious situation. Its title implores the reader to “praise God,” but “God” doesn’t serve as a primary object of Francis’s insights, receiving barely a dozen mentions in fifteen pages, most of them in the course of scriptural quotes. Neither “Jesus” (three mentions) nor “Christ” (one mention, as the “risen One”) take up much of the Trinitarian slack. While “Spirit” and its cognates pop up nearly fifty times in Laudato si’, the term appears only twice in Laudate Deum, and not at all until the sixth and final (and arguably the only traditionally religious) section. Here even more than in the preceding encyclical, Francis is attempting to reach even those who don’t speak “church language”—a fact that will no doubt further rile up his conservative critics.
Laudate Deum is at once a dismal picture and a beacon of hope. It offers a brilliant, universally accessible account of what’s changed in the eight years since the publication of Laudato si’ and what the stakes are today. Two particular areas trouble Pope Francis.
First of all, the “technocratic paradigm” previously described in Laudato si’ appears to have taken a firmer hold right under our noses. “Technology” as such is not Francis’s target; he is by no means a Luddite aiming to dismantle anything with spinning gears and a need for fuel. The technocratic paradigm fails us not because it encourages technological innovation as such, but because it makes us utterly dependent on it. Francis worries about a mentality one finds in books like Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource, which concedes that technology can deplete resources and produce unanticipated threats, but asserts that technological innovation will ultimately solve these problems and generate new resources. According to this account, unreflective technological advancement is never to blame; it’s the restraints imposed by well-intentioned do-gooders that stall technological development, leaving current technological threats unresolvable. But this is essentially the logic of addiction: opioid dependence may seem tolerable if you have endless access to opioids; it’s only when you run out that the serious problems begin.
The technocratic paradigm prompts what is perhaps Pope Francis’s most cogent criticism of well-meaning but toothless public policy beholden to technological solutions:
[W]e risk remaining trapped in the mindset of pasting and papering over cracks, while beneath the surface there is a continuing deterioration to which we continue to contribute. To suppose that all problems in the future will be able to be solved by new technical interventions is a form of homicidal pragmatism, like pushing a snowball down a hill.
We needn’t look far to see how insidiously the technocratic paradigm has festered in our ecological thinking during the past eight years, reinforcing the notion that climate change is simply a low-tech illness in need of a high-tech cure. When Laudato si’ was published in 2015, Elon Musk was “only” the eighty-seventh richest person on the planet. His principal holding, Tesla, had produced its first functional electric vehicle (EV) intended for commercial development only three years before. Eight years on, EVs have become the center of the fight against climate change, offering the promise that drivers in the industrial West may not have to cut back on “happy motoring” after all. (To drivers in the developing world, where EVs won’t be affordable until later in the century, we are essentially saying, “Wait your turn.”)
The growth of the technocratic paradigm keeps our inquiry into climate change blinkered. We approach climate change with the same set of assumptions and cultural attitudes that generated the problem in the first place—only the hardware has changed. We look at the blueprints and ask, “How can we build this with less schmutz coming out the back?” We haven’t asked why we spend so many resources and risk so much environmental degradation to locate, extract, and refine fossil fuels. We haven’t stepped back to assess the technocratic methods, economic assumptions, and cultural pressures that drive the energy industry. Instead, we are just asking new, no-less-technocratic questions about how we will locate, extract, and process the elements needed for EV batteries. We ignore the new harms this continued application of the technocratic paradigm will engender. These are problems left to future generations, who are tacitly expected to find technological solutions with unforeseen consequences of their own, which will in turn burden not them but their progeny. The technocratic paradigm amounts to little more than a compounding intergenerational debt that no single generation has an incentive to pay.
In the case of EVs, we’ve come to relish the idea of swapping an emissions-belching appliance for a sleek, quiet one that doesn’t smell so bad on those increasingly hot summer days. We haven’t paused to consider the questions raised by Sen. Ed Markey, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other proponents of the Green New Deal: Why is our economy and culture so deeply wedded to automobiles? Was it planned this way? Did we vote on it, or was it imposed on us by corporate fiat? What supply-chain threats may emerge when we switch from reliance on oil to reliance on the rare-earth elements that go into EV and other batteries? Who will suffer the consequences of harvesting those metals? Are there better options available—for example, more mass-transit infrastructure—that don’t require us to offer sacrifices at the altar of venture capital?
Closely related to the failures of the technocratic paradigm is a false trust in purely institutional solutions—what Pope Francis refers to as “the weakness of international politics.” Multilateral climate agreements have been around for decades, but they have tended to result in little more than wistful Hallmark Earth Day cards. COP28, which took place less than two months after Laudate Deum’s publication, produced some encouragement, including a “loss and damage” fund for nations most affected by climate change and the explicit call for a “transition” away from fossil fuels. But the trend toward largely rhetorical results persists. Part of the problem is the lack of international enforcement mechanisms. Potential solutions, especially the prospect of “World Government,” raise the ire and paranoia of the pope’s many detractors. But Pope Francis seems to detect something more insidious and anti-democratic seeping into our dependence on government and corporate actors to undo two centuries of environmental damage.
He deftly summarizes the thirty-year history of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), established in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which in 1995 launched the annual COP (Conference of Parties) summits that have garnered much of the media coverage around climate change. Francis laments what he calls “the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes.” The COP21 agreement in Paris eight years ago seemed at the time a mustering of courage—world leaders expressed an urgent need to build a renewable-energy economy. Yet, Francis notes, “the necessary transition towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, is not progressing at the necessary speed. Consequently, whatever is being done risks being seen only as a ploy to distract attention.” The fact that COP28 took place in the United Arab Emirates, a nation enriched by and dependent upon oil profits, and was presided over by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, UAE Minister of Industry, made the prospect of swift and decisive action even less credible.
Bureaucratic chokepoints and corporate malfeasance will remain substantial obstacles to progress at the international level, but Francis emphasizes something few politicians and corporate stakeholders care to acknowledge: that grassroots activism and youthful passion are arguably responsible for whatever progress we have made. Pope Francis proclaims something many political scientists have also recognized—that while popular social movements rarely affect this or that public policy directly, they can succeed in moving outlier policy options into “the realm of acceptability”—shifting the so-called “Overton Window.”
The demands that rise up from below throughout the world, where activists from very different countries help and support one another, can end up pressuring the sources of power. It is to be hoped that this will happen with respect to the climate crisis. For this reason, I reiterate that “unless citizens control political power—national, regional and municipal—it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.”
At a time when some ecological activists speculate that democracy has failed the planet and that the institutional sclerosis exhibited by ineffectual multilateral agreements can be remedied only by more authoritarian approaches, Pope Francis suggests that more democratic inclusion is the key. We need, he urges,
spaces for conversation, consultation, arbitration, conflict resolution and supervision, and, in the end, a sort of increased “democratization” in the global context, so that the various situations can be expressed and included. It is no longer helpful for us to support institutions in order to preserve the rights of the more powerful without caring for those of all.
The past eight years, if not the decades leading up to them, have demonstrated for Pope Francis that the climate crisis is not primarily a “structural,” “systemic,” or “institutional” problem, despite the fact that defective structures, rigged systems, and corrupt institutions deserve much of the blame. It’s people—especially those at the margins—who are affected first when the natural world is destroyed, and people must therefore be involved in the healing process:
Let us finally admit that [climate change] is a human and social problem on any number of levels. For this reason, it calls for involvement on the part of all. In Conferences on the climate, the actions of groups negatively portrayed as “radicalized” tend to attract attention. But in reality they are filling a space left empty by society as a whole, which ought to exercise a healthy “pressure,” since every family ought to realize that the future of their children is at stake.
If I were a gambler (and if the outcome could actually be measured), I’d put a good chunk of money on the following wager: in the few months following October 4, 2023, one of the most popular “find and replace” changes executed in Microsoft Word involved replacing occurrences of “o si’” with “e Deum.” Catholic pastors, preachers, and commentators have responded and will continue to respond to the publication of Laudate Deum by recycling what they wrote and said about Laudato si’ eight years ago, before their attention turned to surreal developments in U.S. electoral politics, a global pandemic, and a spate of new wars. They should be thanked and praised for this; the fact that an apostolic exhortation gets any attention at all in a world endlessly distracted by ephemera suggests we needn’t lose all hope.
This is not, however, what Pope Francis had in mind. At no point in the document does he write, “I remind you…” (despite the inevitable homiletic trope “Pope Francis reminds us…”), nor does he simply caution that we didn’t sufficiently heed his first message. He is saying something far more frightening than that: even if we had heeded fully the message of Laudato si’ and acted decisively upon it, we might still be unprepared for what is to come. The very mindset that got us into this mess pervades our attempts to fix it, and we’re paying the price. Or, to put it more accurately, those subsisting at the margins and far less wedded than we are to consumer comforts are paying the price, while we wait for venture capitalists to fund the next short-term techno-solution that enriches them and, perhaps, shields us a while longer from all but the most minor inconveniences.
Francis is arguably the first pope in history ever compelled to write in real time. While many of his predecessors faced potentially cataclysmic challenges, popes still tended to literally pontificate in words intended to be timeless and enduring. And, fortunately, humanity survived to spawn future generations that could read their words. Plagues eventually subsided; two world wars came to bloody if provisional ends; even the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed to recede in the 1990s.
But Pope Francis does not seem to be writing primarily for posterity. He doesn’t have the luxury of worrying about his legacy, since the issues menacing humanity will likely transform us, one way or another, even before he leaves office. That’s not to say that Laudate Deum is merely a transitory text documenting the situation as it exists at this moment. The principles he brings to bear on climate change are timeless. But certain features of the crisis and certain tendencies in the technocratic response have made themselves clearer over the past eight years. This is why Laudate Deum was needed after Laudato si’, and it is why Francis may need to revisit the issue officially once again if God and time permit. For one thing, climate refugees will increase in number in the coming years and the borders of prosperous nations will likely be clamped down even more stringently in response. The ground is shifting beneath our feet. Laudate Deum represents Francis’s effort to attend and respond to the shifts.
It is, then, much more than a polite request to stop talking and start doing. The pontiff could have said as much years ago when its precursor, Laudato si’, was being transformed from a clarion call for global commitment into résumé fodder for academic theologians, conference speakers, and two-day parish retreat leaders. Laudate Deum reads more like a manifesto—a plea for holy fury in response to climate change, yes, but now with new language and new tools responsive to the ways we’ve been perpetuating the problems we thought we were solving.