‘Why Call It Progress?’

Pope Francis’s Critique of Modern Life
Pope Francis walks as he celebrates the Pentecost Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, June 9, 2019. (CNS Photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters)

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, which will be published in November by Henry Holt and Company. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

Though Francis might look like a raving revolutionary to the captains of capitalism, and though some of his critics within the church have accused him of importing socialism and radical environmentalism into Catholic social teaching, the current pope has in fact pushed out from a path firmly forged by his predecessors.

Saint John Paul II called for an “ecological conversion” of the church through “concrete programs and initiatives,” and Benedict XVI did just that, installing a thousand solar panels on the roof of the Vatican’s audience hall and a hybrid engine in one of the popemobiles. But Benedict’s greatest achievement was to engage theologically with the rising ecological awareness. Noting in Caritas in veritate how nature expressed “a design of love and truth,” a “grammar” that “sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation,” he observed that the logic of gift underpinning the moral intuition behind ecology was incompatible with the ethic of sovereign autonomy.

In a series of addresses, Benedict observed how insisting on respect for the given order of the natural world sat oddly with the contemporary attitude toward sexuality and human life. Permissive laws that upheld a woman’s “choice” assumed that choice alone could specify what was good without reference to transcendent criteria, such as the sacred value of life. Yet when mining corporations pouring toxic waste into rivers claimed it was a necessary price to pay for jobs and consumer goods, progressives were appalled. If creation were merely raw material without intrinsic value, subject only to cost-benefit analysis, then these choices were justified; but if humanity and creation were governed by a logic of gift, in which the right response to creation—whether human or natural—was respect, why did the same thinking not apply in both cases? Benedict called for the development of a “human” ecology to supplement a “natural” one, as a way of connecting with contemporary sensibilities.

Benedict’s arguments were compelling and clear, but they were aimed more at challenging ecologists than converting Catholics. In the hands of the culture warriors, “human ecology” became simply another stick to beat up liberals in rows over gay marriage or abortion laws. Yet the more that prolife, pro-family groups, especially in the United States, appealed to “human ecology,” the more exposed was their own lack of commitment to natural ecology. Many saw no contradiction in arguing against abortion and gay marriage while defending a free-market model of unrestrained consumption, the right to carry guns, and the death penalty.

Francis gently challenged this schizophrenia at a Vatican conference on male-female complementarity in September 2014, organized by prominent American conservatives, including Professor Robert George of Princeton University. The conference was an astute bid to respond to the deconstruction of marriage and sexuality by highlighting the ecological basis of conjugality: how maleness and femaleness run through all cultures and faiths, as well as the natural world. (Jonathan Lord Sacks, the former chief rabbi to the United Kingdom, offered an account of marriage that began with what he claimed was the first-ever act of copulation—by prehistoric Scottish fish.) To loud applause, Francis described how the collapse of family and marriage under pressure from a “throwaway culture” advanced under “the flag of freedom” had caused “spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.” But he went on to point out that this was “an ecological crisis; for social environments, like natural environments, need protection.” Equating the two environments was a subtle but clear shift, and the applause was more muted.

Francis needed, for the sake of the church’s credibility, to challenge American conservative double standards, but his main aim was to take ecology where science couldn’t: into the realm of the sacred. Science could pinpoint the “is” but not the “ought”; it could inform, but not move to act. It could shout and sound the alarm, but it could not ask people to care about what they did not love.

This was a point made by climate scientists themselves. One of the great oceanographers of modern times, Walter Munk, remarked in a Vatican conference in 2014 that global warming could only be overcome by “a miracle of love and unselfishness.” Media stories of endangered minorities and species appealed to classically liberal moral concerns but often left religious people unmoved. A Stanford University study published a few months before Laudato si’ came out showed that a message centered on purity and protecting God’s creation from desecration would resonate deeply with religious sensibilities, moving people both to accept the evidence and to act on it.

That meant providing a new narrative that transcended liberal ecology, one that could take the polarity of respect for nature on the one hand and respect for human uniqueness on the other and create a new synthesis beyond the dialectically opposed ideologies of biocentrism and anthropocentrism. Laudato si’ called this new thinking “integral ecology” because it offered a unified moral narrative. Humankind was called to be a custodian of creation, rather than its arrogant overlord; human beings were interconnected with, and biologically dependent upon, our fellow species. All of us were God’s creatures. Thus Laudato si’ would be the first authoritative Catholic document to teach, unequivocally and emphatically, the intrinsic goodness of nonhuman animals, making animal welfare a prolife issue.

Integral ecology also enabled Francis to position the global church at the heart of a drive to respect the divinely gifted design of love and truth in every “environment.” Whether in the natural world, the family, or urban spaces, integral ecology offered a lens with which to judge the misuse of human autonomy and the idolatry of power. It was a challenge both to prolife, pro-family conservatives to respect the integrity of the natural world, and to environmental campaigners to safeguard the institutions and laws that protect human life and family. In this sense, Laudato si’ has been key to Francis’s evangelization call. The purpose of the church in the contemporary world is not to dominate but to serve, to reveal a loving Creator who cares deeply about His creation.

Laudato si’ wasn’t addressed only to the bishops and faithful, or even—as some encyclicals have been—to all “people of goodwill,” but to everyone on the planet. The pope was inviting every human being to join in a new great task of collaboration with their Creator and with each other, one that was about “ecology” in the original Greek sense of oikos, meaning “home.” At the church of San Damiano in Assisi, Jesus appeared to St. Francis to ask him to repair His church. Now a pope named after St. Francis was asking humanity to repair God’s world.

According to Pablo Canziani, an Argentine atmospheric physicist who studies climate change, Francis’s genius was to discern the moment when science and religion were reaching out to each other, ready for a partnership that could enable new ways of seeing among the mass of citizens of the world, and so halt the hurtling train of consumption and destruction. That new lens starts with the anguished realization that something vital has been lost and leads to a conviction that things have to be done differently to get it back. The old-fashioned word for this is “conversion.”

 

Francis trusts that the very technocracy laying waste to the Christian legacy will also awaken Christians from their slumber.

Understanding what got lost and when is crucial to the backstory of Laudato si’. Nature was once something sacred, to be respected and cooperated with. But then came the triumph of science and industry on the backs of a population explosion and economic activity allied to the raw power of techne. “We went from one extreme to the other without finding the midpoint,” Canziani explains in his office in Buenos Aires, “and now we’re on a path of destruction.” That loss is the theme of Romano Guardini’s extraordinary texts, The End of the Modern World (1956) and its accompanying essay, Power and Responsibility (1961), which took as their subject what the German theologian saw as the central question of the age: the mindset of power shaped by technocracy.

In a 1989 lecture at the Colegio del Salvador in Buenos Aires on the need for a new political anthropology, Bergoglio quoted the books, describing Guardini as “the prophet of postmodernity” for identifying how the rapid development of technology over two hundred years, accelerated by globalization, had brought humanity to a fork in the road of history. Guardini’s thesis was key not just to the narrative of Laudato si’, which regularly quotes The End of the Modern World, but also to how Francis saw the encyclical’s purpose: to help humanity grasp that the choice was annihilation or conversion.

The German theologian’s account centers on the radical sundering of Creator and created. Where premoderns saw nature as an expression of the divine, and saw themselves as an organic part of nature, now people asserted themselves over nature in search of their well-being. As the world ceased to be God’s creation, it could be possessed and plundered with new know-how. Guardini saw a paradox in the autonomous rationality that underpinned this shift: that man’s bid for power would render him ever more subject to a power not his own. Such a power would increasingly enslave humankind by tempting it with limitless possibility, like the forbidden fruit offered by the serpent in Eden.

Guardini foresaw that power itself would become increasingly depersonalized, emptying itself of moral sensibility, of empathy and compassion. Man had come to believe the lie that he, not God, was the author of his own creation, and over time his freedom would be undone, ironically, by his autonomy. Foreseeing that humanity “will be free to further his lordship of creation, carrying it even to its last consequences,” Guardini observed that this mastery would be open to him because he “has permitted himself utter freedom: the freedom to determine his own goals, to dissolve the immediate reality of things, to employ its elements for the execution of his own ends.” Increasingly, he would do these things “without any consideration for what had been thought inviolate or untouchable in nature.” The effect would be to sunder the very bonds that held people together.

Rejecting the optimism of the postwar world, Guardini predicted with remarkable clarity that the forces that led to Auschwitz and the Gulag would accelerate as family, tribe, church, and nation continued to fall apart. The era of the totalitarian state would give way to the totalitarianism of economic and corporate power: with the dissolution of the bonds holding people together in families, institutions, and nations, humanity would be increasingly destabilized and dominated by the forces of technology and finance. Guardini saw at the end of the road what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman would memorably call “the liquid society,” and even named its symptoms: a time of mass migrations, social breakdown, and the collapse of grand narratives, in which fluidity takes over from stability as the new norm of human existence. It is to this world—ours now—that Francis in Laudato si’ has offered the church’s first comprehensive response.

Francis agrees with Guardini that the real drama of postmodernity turns not on technology per se but on the mindset of power that flourishes in a technocratic age. In the Incarnation, Guardini observed, God had revealed true power, which is the power of service, in which freedom is subject to and constrained by the essence of things and the limits of human nature. Jesus’ unmasking of the false power of domination and violence was the triumph of the Cross, his kenosis, which Guardini calls “supreme power converted into humility.”

Hence the hidden hope of Laudato si’: the alternative modernity it points to, as, with greater ecological awareness, humanity awakens to the false promises of technocracy and consumerism. Francis trusts that the very technocracy laying waste to the Christian legacy will also awaken Christians from their slumber. As love disappeared from the face of the public world, Guardini foresaw, it would throw into relief “the courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ.”

This revelation would be accelerated and assisted by secularization. As the unbeliever learned to live honestly without religion, the church, unshackled from law and culture, would be better able to contradict the surrounding ethos. The authentic Christian witness—concrete and close, authentic and “organic”—would contrast ever more with the temptation “to erect a culture on rational and technical foundations alone.” The drama of Western postmodernity would unfurl in the ever starker contrast between the technocratic paradigm on the one hand and a renewed Christianity on the other. Either humanity would be saved by integrating and subordinating the new power of the techne, or it would surrender to that power and perish.

Guardini closed with an intriguing intuition: that as people become ever more governed by forces they cannot control, they would turn to a “great man.” His imagined leader—whether in the world of politics or religion, he does not say—understands “how to subordinate power to the true meaning of human life and works.” Free from the modern dogma of progress, comfortable with technology but not in thrall to it, and thus capable of establishing an authority that respects human dignity and creating a social order in which “God is acknowledged as the living norm and point of reference for all existence,” the great man (or woman) needed for our time, he concluded, would be able to grasp “Christianity’s inmost secret: humility.”

 

Whether in the natural world, the family, or urban spaces, integral ecology offered a lens with which to judge the misuse of human autonomy and the idolatry of power.

Is Francis that “great man”? In his mass of inauguration on the Feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, 2013, the new pope’s homily was precisely on this topic of authentic power as service, a power of nurture that can midwife a new social order.

It was a social order in which government had an important role, checking the forces of technocracy and protecting the various environments, human and biological, urban and rural, that are necessary for human flourishing. Just as Jacques Maritain’s “integral humanism” in the 1940s offered a postwar Catholic vision of a European democracy open to God, in contrast to the prevailing liberal individualism and socialist collectivism, Francis’s “integral ecology” offers a vision of social and economic organization underpinned by the gift logic of the Christian tradition as an alternative to the dominant technocracy. It is integral because it respects the organic links of existence. In speaking of the “environment,” Francis wrote in Laudato si’ that “what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it.” He went on:

Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behavior patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions that consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis that is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

A reinvigoration of the very purpose of statecraft was called for. Government could no longer be reduced to an ineffectual referee overseeing a Darwinian struggle of rivals, but must act to foster many “ecologies” in the face of the technocratic tide. That meant, for example, protecting the value and vocation of work by containing the power of corporations and creating jobs through small-scale businesses and producers; fostering the values and identity of peoples and cultures and their ancestral lands; bolstering urban spaces where communities can flourish; as well as ensuring decent housing, good public transport, clean air, and the integration of rundown urban areas.

In chapter five of Laudato si’ Francis asked: If increased production and consumption lead to a deterioration in the quality of life of the poor and the degradation of the environment, why call it progress? If a company swells its profits at the expense of future resources or the health of the environment, should we consider this growth a success? Creativity was needed, along with an openness to new possibilities, to consider ways of investing that created jobs, made energy more efficient, and reduced consumption in the rich world to allow poorer places to develop. “We know how unsustainable is the behavior of those who constantly consume and destroy,” he argued, “while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity.”

The idea that decreased growth in rich parts of the world was necessary to allow poorer places to prosper went directly against the core dogma of trickle-down economics. Popes had long been skeptical of that dogma. As Francis pointed out in Evangelii gaudium, rather than the money trickling down, the glass of wealth usually just gets bigger. But Laudato si’ did not enter into the complex question of wealth creation. Its role was to acknowledge the reality that the very poor were staying poor while the rich got richer and to call for it to be addressed. But for many on the Catholic right in America, even that was intolerable.

Yet the evidence was clear: the shift in wealth from labor to capital, along with the stagnation of wages and spiraling corporate profits, the increase in inequality and the growing exclusion of the poor, showed that globalization had gone wrong. Coordinated global policies were needed that started from the planet as a whole. Developing countries were owed a great debt, the pope said in Laudato si’, because the countries where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found were fueling the development of richer countries at the cost of the former’s present and future. Hence wealthy countries should pay their “ecological debt” to poor countries “by significantly limiting their consumption of nonrenewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development.” Francis described the planet as a single “homeland” that called for “one world, with a common plan.” For the economist Jeffrey Sachs, this was the most important phrase in a document he praises as “magnificent” and “breathtaking.”

After listing all the areas in which not just cooperation but “a global consensus” would be necessary, Francis called for a “true world political authority” capable of enforcing international agreements. The idea—greeted with derision in some quarters—was based on a longstanding principle of Catholic social teaching mooted by John XXIII and endorsed by Benedict XVI in Caritas in veritate in precisely the words Francis used. That principle was “subsidiarity”—namely, that governance should be at a level appropriate to the task. Usually this was a call for higher authorities to devolve down, but it could equally signal the need for new oversight bodies. It had long been axiomatic to the Vatican that only global rules implemented by transnational authorities were capable of meeting border-blind challenges, not just to police drug trafficking, tax evasion, and terrorism, but to coordinate policies of common human concern such as migration and the environment.

“Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy,” Francis declared as a general principle, adding that it was time to reject what he called “a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”

In the final chapter of the encyclical, Francis urged his readers to accept “that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.” He went on to earn a standing ovation from religious and ethically committed people everywhere when he added: “We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that lighthearted superficiality has done us no good.” Both the planet and the poor had suffered from an egocentric culture of self-gratification. “The mindset that leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset that lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society,” Francis wrote. The lack of concern was creating a state of lawlessness. Where the state failed to take responsibility, business groups or organized-crime syndicates stepped into the vacuum. Corporations concerned only with financial gain and a politics concerned merely with retaining or increasing power would fail to rescue humanity from the abyss it faced. Francis warned that “politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation.” That was no longer good enough.

 

It is now clear where the church stands.

Having argued in Laudato si’ that a lack of agreement on curbing global warming was a failure of technocratic politics, Francis invited the world’s leaders to prove politics could raise its game. Laudato si’ was the first papal document ever to be released with a view to influencing a specific political event: the weeklong meeting in early December 2015 of 190 world leaders in Paris.

It was known as COP21 because it was the twenty-first yearly session of the “Conference of the Parties” to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Efforts to meet that convention’s goals through global agreements had thus far stumbled, and the opportunity for action was fading fast. Laudato si’ had put presidents and prime ministers on notice: humanity could not tolerate nations putting their own interests before the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide,” Francis warned, “will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.”

He repeated this now-or-never, do-or-die message in one-on-one meetings with world leaders over the following months, as well as in a series of high-profile interventions on his trips. In addresses in Latin America, before the U.S. Congress, at the world headquarters of the United Nations, and finally in a speech at the UN’s African base in Nairobi, Kenya, days before the summit opened, he held political leaders’ feet to the fire, urging them, in effect, to examine their consciences before the tribune of history.

Failure to reach agreement would be “catastrophic,” he said in Nairobi, where he called for a new global energy system that made “little or no” use of carbon. He asked the world’s leaders to deliver a threefold agreement that would lessen the impact of global warming, fight poverty, and ensure respect for human dignity. The presidents of the world’s five continental associations of Catholic bishops meanwhile backed his call for “an enforceable agreement that protects our common home and all its inhabitants.” Ecclesiologically, this was the first glimpse of a future of regional patriarchates.

By then the church’s base was being mobilized by an unprecedented startup network of hundreds of organizations in the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM), formed at the end of 2014 by Tomás Insua, a young Argentine studying climate-change policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. While working for Google Buenos Aires, Insua used to spend weekends in church projects among the poor. His ecological conversion came after the tech giant sent him to its office in Singapore, from where he traveled with his wife to the Philippines. There they saw the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which had slammed into the islands in Tacloban in late 2013, killing more than six thousand people and displacing 4.1 million. “It opened my eyes wide,” he told me, “to see that climate change is about social justice.”

Studying climate policy at Harvard the following year, Insua was thrilled at the news of the pope’s forthcoming encyclical but dismayed to find that secular green groups and other faiths and denominations were far more excited about it than were the Catholics. Of the 1,500-odd organizations taking part in the global climate march in New York in September 2014, just two or three had anything to do with the Catholic Church, while on campus, he found the Protestants and Hindus far more engaged than his coreligionists. After meeting with Canziani in Buenos Aires that fall, Insua put together a network to leverage global parish-level pressure for a deal in Paris a year later.

The GCCM launched in January 2015 with the backing of the archbishop of Manila, Cardinal “Chito” Tagle, who presented Francis with the network’s foundational statement as the pope arrived in the Filipino capital from Colombo, Sri Lanka. The cornerstone of the papal trip, which would set a new record for the largest-ever gathering—more than six million people at the closing Mass in Manila—was a visit to the typhoon-devastated area that had so moved Insua. Francis braved a tropical storm to reach Tacloban, cutting short his trip to avoid the worst of the weather from a new hurricane that tore down scaffolding at his Mass venue, killing a pilgrim. In the howling wind and rain he met the typhoon victims, whose pain, he said in a homily, had silenced his heart.

He made no mention of climate change, but he hardly needed to. The angry winds spoke for him. For a country averaging twenty-two typhoons a year, a future of more high-intensity storms from a warming planet was an appalling prospect. Ever since “What is happening to our beautiful land?”—the Filipino bishops’ 1988 cri de coeur quoted in both Evangelii gaudium and Laudato sí’—the church in the world’s fourth-largest Catholic country had been at the forefront of the call to action on climate change. Now the Filipino bishops led the mobilization for the GCCM-organized global petition, which, by the time Insua presented it to President François Hollande in December, had gathered close to a million signatures.

A few weeks earlier, the global climate march had again taken place across the world. This time around 40,000 of the 800,000 taking part were Catholics mobilized by the church. The GCCM petition, along with Francis’s pressure on COP21, were key to producing the Paris Agreement—particularly the more ambitious target of limiting the increase in global temperature in this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to be achieved mainly by polluting nations pledging to pull away from fossil fuels.

On the night of December 8, 2015, as the world’s leaders in Paris haggled, a three-hour slideshow of stunning photos of the natural world was projected onto St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It was also the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy, a year called by Francis to celebrate God’s loving embrace of His creation. As yawning lions and electric-blue fish slid over the venerable façade, the square filled with the squawking and clatter of birds and insects. There could be no doubt, now, where the Catholic Church stood on the great issue of the age.

Like a windhover, Laudato si’ circled above the climate summit. Al Gore, the former vice president and Nobel Prize–winning activist, said later that the encyclical had been crucial in leading the world to commit to addressing the climate crisis ahead of the Paris Agreement. Lord Nicholas Stern, the World Bank economist, said it was “quite extraordinary in changing the weight of the argument.” Stories circulated of Francis making urgent phone calls to break eleventh-hour deadlocks, urging whatever was needed—boldness, flexibility, or generosity—for the sake of the agreement. The pope had a “huge role to play” in the world coming together in Paris, says Jeffrey Sachs, who was stunned by how many country delegations mentioned the encyclical in Paris. The Philippine delegation in particular used the GCCM petition to help raise the ambition in Paris, persuading Catholic-majority nations that what had been seen as an unfeasible target the year before, the Holy See–backed target of 1.5 degrees, was now the benchmark. According to Tony Annett, a climate-change specialist who worked with Sachs at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, “The common wisdom is that, without Laudato si’, it is far from sure that the Paris agreement would have been signed.”

 

It wasn’t just the activists and the experts who were impressed. Laudato si’ was by a long shot the most widely read papal document in history. Four years after its publication it remains the most quoted encyclical ever. Far outside the Catholic fold, people were blown away by its tone, at once tender and caustic, apocalyptic and hopeful, and by the way that it doesn’t just give a reading of the situation but spells out concrete actions, something unprecedented in the history of papal social teaching. According to Sachs, “it’s a papal encyclical, but it’s also a document you can teach in a sciences graduate course, in a public-policy course, in a theology course, in a moral philosophy course, in a diplomacy course—and every one would meet the standards of rigor. It is a most remarkable document, and an essential document for our time.”

Its impact on the church has been mixed so far—especially in the United States. A Yale University study a month before the Paris meeting showed a significant increase in the number of American Catholics who recognized global warming, and a Georgetown University poll revealed that Catholics were now more likely to be concerned about climate change than any other U.S. Christian group. There have been new shoots of activity across the U.S. church: talks in parishes and schools that led to “green teams,” religious orders disinvesting in fossil fuels, and solar panels replacing tiles on the roofs of diocesan buildings.

But while the organizers of the Yale study later said Francis had had a “significant impact on public opinion” on climate change during and after his September 2015 visit, six months afterward it was not clear how much more likely Catholics were than other Americans to buy fewer presents, let alone recycle, compost, carpool, switch off lights or the air-conditioning. Such acts, Laudato si’ had urged in its final chapter, were capable of changing the world, for “they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.” It wasn’t just the Americans who were slow to change their habits. In February 2019, the pope told moral theologians that it was rare, in the sacrament of reconciliation, to hear someone confess to an act of violence against nature and creation. “We do not yet have awareness of this sin,” he told them. “It is your task to do this.”

Yet it is now clear where the church stands. The decision by President Donald Trump in June 2017 to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was described as “deeply troubling” by the U.S. bishops, whose call for the U.S. government to recommit to combat climate change quickly gained the support of close to eight hundred major Catholic institutions, including dozens of dioceses, hundreds of parishes and religious communities. Worldwide, more than fifty major Catholic organizations, including banks with more than $7.5 billion on their books, have stepped away from dirty energy. And the church played a key role at the December 2018 COP24 summit in Katowice in holding world leaders’ feet to the fire.

Francis, too, has kept up the pressure, speaking out on the blight of plastics in the seas and convening a major meeting at the Vatican of oil-company executives and investors, telling them that the world has to switch to clean energy if it is to avoid catastrophe. “Civilization requires energy,” he warned them, “but energy use must not destroy civilization.”

On April 16, 2019, Francis met a pigtailed Swedish teenager with Asperger Syndrome in St. Peter’s Square. The sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, inspiration of climate protest strikes across the world, had become the conscience of a new generation demanding from adults that they act. The old pope was beaming, and had just one message to her: “Go on, go on, continue,” he told her. Thunberg was overjoyed. “Thank you for standing up for the climate, for speaking the truth,” she told him. “It means a lot.”

Published in the October 2019 issue: 

Austen Ivereigh is a Fellow of Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, Oxford, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, will be published by Henry Holt on November 5.

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