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The Poetry and Politics of Pope Francis’ Climate Encyclical

The pontiff’s style is as radical as his message.
Pope Francis.

Pope Francis. (Photo: neneo/Shutterstock)

Pope Francis lives modestly, having renounced the Papal Apartments for a small cell in the Vatican guesthouse. In this regard, he honors his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. But the Pontiff’s relationship with language is far more florid, at times even baroque. In interviews, he plays free-association to grand effect, drawing on art, poetry, and the history of science. In September 2013, Francis gave an expansive interview, disseminated by the Vatican, that attested to his facility at wedding abstract thought to concrete policy. He came off as a pragmatist (“There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now have lost value or meaning”), a mystical aesthete (he describes the gospel as having “freshness and fragrance”), and a Jesuit mistrustful of authority (a true Jesuit, Francis said, “must be a person whose thought is incomplete”).

He is a Renaissance man who believes in the theological uses of doubt, an ascetic given to rich, occasionally gnomic pronouncements, and a pope who broadcasts his fallibility (“I am a really, really undisciplined person”)—small wonder Francis has attracted fierce devotion even among the secular American left.

Pope Francis begins by invoking the musical prayer in which St. Francis of Assisi likens the Earth, “our shared home,” to “a sister, with whom we share equally in life,” and also to “a mother who cradles us in her arms.”

As he prepares to address the United Nations summit on climate change in September, followed by a speech on the same topic at a special joint meeting of Congress the same month, the pope’s secretaries have prepared a document unprecedented in the Vatican’s history: A nearly 200-page encyclical that ambitiously—and persuasively—integrates the problems of global poverty and man-made climate change, proposing collective solutions for both. Still more radical, the encyclical characterizes both problems as unequivocal moral failures on the part of mankind. (An Italian PDF of the encyclical leaked Sunday; the Vatican has asked that journalists ignore the leak.)

This is the sort of moral absolutist language that popes usually reserve for birth control. And all the various elements of the Franciscan style are on display: the poetry, the mystery, the humility, the moral vision. In between his comments on theology and natural philosophy, Francis also addresses policy more specifically than his predecessors (for example, the problems with carbon offsets). Also rare: The pope is not merely targeting the faithful, but everyoneogni persona che abita questo pianeta—Lutherans, Muslims, atheists, Anabaptists, you name it.

The climate-change encyclical deserves all the coverage it can get, and not just because of how mad it will make Rick Santorum and John Boehner. The style of the encyclical—the warmth of its insistence on a common cause—is as radical as any of the ideas it sets forth.

Pope Francis begins by invoking the musical prayer in which St. Francis of Assisi likens the Earth, “our shared home,” to “a sister, with whom we share equally in life,” and also to “a mother who cradles us in her arms.” The Earth then speaks: “Now our sister protests the ills we have perpetrated against her, our reckless use and abuse of the blessings that God has placed in her.” And what is our excuse? “The violence that festers in the human heart, tainted by sin, now shows itself likewise in the symptoms of disease which we see in the ground, in the waters, in the air, in the fauna of the Earth.”

The world’s paupers—i poveri più abbandonati e maltratti—are the first to suffer Mother Earth’s decline, but none of us are immune: “Our very bodies are made of the planet’s own elements, her air that which lets us breathe, her water that which restores us and gives us life.”

So, what do we have? Sister and Mother Earth, the remnant of a medieval song, and a kicker that frames the despoliation of nature as both barbarically cruel and something akin to suicide.

And that’s just an excerpt of the first page.

For all his hipness, the pope nonetheless pays certain formal respects, such as overemphasizing John Paul II’s commitment to environmental stewardship and vastly over-emphasizing Pope Benedict’s commitment to ending poverty. But Francis is far more interested in a different predecessor, the one whose name he took. St. Francis is the Catholic steward of the Earth, the patron saint of environmentalists. The pope seizes on this idea with deft grace:

He is the patron saint of all those who study and work in the field of ecology, and is loved even by many who are not Christian. He showed devoted attention to God’s creation and to the hopeless, the poor, the abandoned.... In [Saint Francis], we see how these cares are inseparable: care for nature, justice for the poor, duty to society and inner peace.

The crises of poverty and rising oceans, of continental droughts and mass starvation—the pope has taken his compassion for the poor and aligned it with sound arguments about how climate change affects them the most. At the same time, he offers a unified argument about how a global culture of consumption has led to the present impasse. For all his occasional self-deprecation, Pope Francis leaves open no excuse for a world where the one-percenters earn enough in a day to feed all their starving countrymen. Not being Catholic isn’t even an excuse. Pope Francis and his secretaries (foremost among them Monsignor Daniel B. Gallagher, a brilliant American Latinist who also runs the pope’s Twitter account) have drawn the line, and Catholic climate-deniers now face some heavy casuistry if they wish to keep the faith.

When the pope visits America in September, we will hear two speeches, both of them grave and powerful. But these will also be beautiful speeches, and that very beauty is the heart of his argument. Human language, comune, is shared, like our world. Before we love it for its resources, we must love it for itself.