Earlier last week I quipped that the original title of Pope Francis’s latest encyclical was Industrial Society and Its Future. For those who didn’t get the reference, it is the title of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto. Now I wrote this with tongue firmly planted in cheek, although I am evidently not the only person who made this connection. Though the Pontiff iterates that he is not opposed to technological progress per se, the impression he leaves is that he is not particularly fond of modern society and the advances of the great inventions of the 20th and 21st century.
In this he’s not entirely alone. Who hasn’t complained about the ways people bury themselves in their phones, failing to interact with those around them? But he goes far beyond such laments and rails against many of the aspects of modern life. What’s more aggravating is the way that he ignores how most of these advances have improved rather than hampered the lives of the poor. More unfortunately, this is a relatively minor failing of the encyclical compared to its other shortcomings.
The overarching defense of the encyclical is that it isn’t just about climate change. The Pope was really aiming his pen in large part at secularist environmentalists and trying to persuade them to encounter the entirety of the Gospel. After all, the Pope definitively defends Church teaching on abortion and family life, pointing out the hypocrisy of greenies who seemingly value plant life over human life.
This is true to an extent. It is not merely a climate change encyclical, and the Pope made an attempt to provide a holistic approach to ecology. As Yuval Levin puts it:
The Pope is trying to hijack the standing and authority (in the eyes of global elites and others) of a left-wing or radical environmentalist agenda to advance a deeply traditional Catholic vision of the human good and to get it a hearing by dressing it up as enlightened ecology.
Sadly the Pope utterly failed in this attempt, and that leads me to my fundamental criticism. The encyclical is a rather bifurcated document. The Pope generally relies on secularist language in attempt to talk, as it were, to the whole world. Then the Pope scatters in theological references. At no point, though, does he integrate the theological and the secular. What we’re left with is an encyclical that simultaneously treats the secular audience too softly and too hard. Too softly in that he is reluctant to boldly preach the Gospel message to them to convince them of the right approach to acting more ethically, and yet too hard because where he does attempt to defend traditional Church teaching, he does so in an abrupt, unconvincing manner. Calling out the hypocrisy of supporting environmental reform while also defending abortion rights is all well and good, but the Pope fails to elaborate on this. He doesn’t substantively rely on the rich teachings of the Church that date back two thousand years. He just makes a declarative statement that this attitude is incongruous and then moves on.
That this approach is doomed to failure is witnessed in the very first comment to the post linked at the beginning of this post.
If the pope wants to fight climate change he could start by allowing contraception.
Clearly the parts of this encyclical that we’re supposed to have cheered on didn’t reach this person.
Now it will be said that the Pope is not at fault because either the media under-reported these aspects of the encyclical or the audience simply rejected it. Sorry, but more than after two years into his Pontificate if he’s unaware of how his words will be used, then the Pope is not a particularly wise man. Furthermore, if he’s going to make a moral case against abortion and birth control, he has to try a little bit harder than he did on these pages. Considering how repetitive and long-winded the rest of the encyclical is, he surely could have edited down elsewhere to make room for more detailed apologetics on these issues. He did not, though, and he is primarily responsibile for this failure to connect.
And that’s a core issue with this Pope’s style: it’s one that is necessarily going to sway the people he’s trying to sway. Just as he is doomed to fail to convince the secularists, his method of dealing with economics is just as awkward and off-putting. He presents a rather black and white worldview with the ever put upon poor on one side, and a group of Snidely Whiplash-like cartoon capitalists on the other, twirling their mustaches and cooking up schemes to make the poor even poorer. Actually, there might be a third group: uncaring bumpkins sitting in their air conditioned homes with the eyes locked onto their mobile devices.
What’s funny about this rather strawman-laden document (which incidentally reads as though sections were written by the blogger formerly known as Morning’s Minion) is that he chides the ivory tower intellectuals who don’t really interact with the real world, and who form opinions without truly understanding what people are going through on a day-to-day basis. Now it’s true that perhaps Americans and others in the west can’t relate to some of the abysmal conditions existing in other parts of the world, and thus we might tend to ignore or shrug off as exaggerated some of the Pope’s lamentations. At the same time, the Pope himself has lived in his own sort of bubble. Having lived his entire life in an economic basket case he can’t totally be faulted for criticizing the current economic system. Yet these experiences have perhaps inoculated him from forming a more accurate picture of the world and how economic and technological progress has vastly improved the lot of much of humanity. Thus he has formed a rather simplistic view of capitalism. Sadly, this leads to a simplistic, meandering, and ultimately worthless document.
Coda: I wrote this blog and had it set to post last Friday, but then the Supreme Court decision came down and decided to hold off. Part of me thought of completely deleting the post because it seemed other issues were more pressing. Ultimately that’s why I decided to publish this: it’s even more evidence of the Pope’s bad judgment. With all that is happening in the world, this is what he chooses to write a long-winded encyclical about? This is what he’s throwing the full p.r. machine of the Vatican into? I’m not normally one for suggesting that Pope can’t write about certain subjects due to the severity of other issues. Metaphorically speaking Popes ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And the Pope can’t drop everything for American political events. But it’s not just America that is being impacted by these cultural shifts.