The Francises, Pope and Saint

Report card on the Pope’s encyclical on the environment: good but some flaws

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue
Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Pope Francis Bergoglio’s encyclical Laudato Si’  “on care for our common home” is the first SFIK to have an Italian rather than a Latin title. It is also more significantly unusual in being addressed to “every person living on this planet” (§3). So non-Catholics like me are invited to react.

The praise part is easy. It’s a solid exposition of a theology of creation that most Christians and many followers of other faiths would endorse. The application to climate change and the call to action (§169) is clear and excellently timed, in the runup to the critical Paris climate conference in November. At times it transcends mere soundness and achieves prophetic force:

  • “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (§11)
  • “We can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. … This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (§59)
  • “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God…” (§83)

The Pope, channelling Francis of Assisi, condemns the instrumental view of animals of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas:

We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (§67; see also §221)

Thomists get a consolation citation of their hero in §86. We can expect to see more and stronger Catholic condemnations of factory farming.

The encyclical is far from perfect, and I have my little list of complaints, for what they are worth.

Pope Francis needs an editor. Laudato Si’ is a huge and sprawling sermon on more or less every social and environmental issue you can think of. It includes sections on the digital society (§47), biological and chemical warfare (§57), abortion (§120), work (§124ff), biotechnology (§130ff), “cultural ecology”(§143ff), housing (§152), transport (§153), and Sunday rest (§237). He even finds space to attack water privatisation (§30) and air-conditioning (§55), and endorse the Brazilian nationalist canard of a gringo plot to internationalize the Amazon (§38). It’s a fair bet that nobody who doesn’t have to will read or take notice of these. The Pope is rightly concerned with alienation and modern city life: doesn’t that deserve its own separate treatment?

In a text addressed explicitly to non-Catholics, it would have been nice to see more recognition of their traditions and work on these issues. Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew gets a shout-out (§§8-9), but not the largely Protestant World Council of Churches, which has been working in the area since 1983, nor the Dalai Lama.

The main problems relate to the cultural diagnosis. This is an assemblage of every modish critique since 1968: the “technocratic paradigm” (§106ff), “relativism” (§§122-123), “consumerism” (§§144, 203, 209, 219), “instant gratification” (§162). There is clearly something in these concepts. But these are phrases dreamt up by cultural critics of social trends, not well-defined ideologies like Marxism, utilitarianism or neoliberal economics. It needs more evidence to convince me that these constructs are really the false gods of the age. I see three particular points of weakness.


Pope Francis does say something specific about this in §106, but it’s wrong:

This [technocratic] paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation.

This certainly fits Francis Bacon, who was as dominionist as they come in his experimental project. But much science, including the paradigm one of the celestial mechanics of Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Laplace, is non-experimental – and necessarily non-manipulative. So was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. (Darwin as a man was an exemplar of respect for the natural world he wondered at and helped us to understand more deeply.) So is climate science today.

Francis missed an opening here to attack the current pressures on science to be “relevant” at all costs, which means serving capitalist business. Understanding the world of nature should be an act of love, not of rape.

Another problem here is that the encyclical endorses the standard economic theory of externalities and the “polluter pays” principle (§195). But a full scheme of externality-correcting environmental taxes is as technocratic as you can get. The Paris climate deal, if there is one, will be technocracy in action. Businessmen by and large don’t have the math to be technocrats.


The many gripes about “consumerism” are reminiscent of 1968 radicalism, Marcuse and so on. There is a grain or three of truth: modern capitalism generates or reinforces social and psychological pressures to consume stuff we don’t much need, reinforced by a barrage of advertising and corporate fellow-travellers like fashion magazines. They do lead a good many into expensive debt, and a few into shopping addiction. But the full theory, that corporations can bring desires for products into being, is a self-serving fantasy of the advertising trade. If an alien were to infer our preference maps from a sample of TV advertising, it would conclude we are obsessed by washing powders, deodorants and shampoos, and aphrodisiac coffee. The distribution of advertising has little to do with the pattern of consumer spending – look how much we spend on housing and college education, hardly advertised at all.

My main objection however is not that this is woolly, poorly supported and outdated pop social science: it’s that it fails to take the radical doctrines of poverty of St Francis and Jesus of Nazareth seriously. When Francesco di Bernardone stripped himself naked in front of his father in the centre of Assisi, throwing back the nice clothes his rich father had provided him with, was he merely accusing Papa of false consciousness? I think not. The reasons we have for wanting material possessions are serious and deep-rooted. We want a bigger house so the children can each sleep in their own room. We want a car so we can get to work and the shops without exhausting ourselves. The children want smartphones so they can keep in touch with their friends. You want a hi-fi so you can listen to great music. A nobleman wants nice clothes to cement his status. Oh, and the Vatican hospital wants air-conditioning to keep patients comfortable, and its offices want air-conditioning so the Curia and is assistants can work effectively and with dignity.

The challenge of Francis and Jesus is to live without all this. The great majority of us cannot. If the Pope is preaching a Franciscan doctrine of radical poverty to the world, this cannot be done by hints. A watered-down version that just tries to make us feel vaguely guilty about buying a new car is not coherent or worthy of respect.


This pope, while far more sensitive to the concerns of women than his predecessors, has not shifted official Catholic doctrine against reproductive rights one iota. So the encyclical brushes away the population question. Unlimited population growth will destroy the environment, at any standard of living. Logically, living in harmony with the creation requires stabilising the human population. Francis will have none of this. In the feeble paragraph 50, he makes the misleading assertion that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. A little is, for a while, but that’s not what we are facing.

The paragraph ends with this mumbling and barely comprehensible concession:

Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.

Meaning? What was needed was a clear statement that limiting family size is a duty, flowing from respect for the creation and other humans in society. Very fortunately, this has happened already everywhere outside parts of Africa. As Hans Rosling puts it, we are already at “peak child.” But even with reproductive ratios of 2, demographic inertia will push the world population to 10 or 11 billion before it levels off. This turns the task of a transition to sustainability from impossible to merely hugely difficult. The Catholic Church has fought this blessed demographic transition every step of the way, as seen in the ACA lawsuits to hamper contraceptive provision under “religious freedom”. It should be giving thanks for it.

Waste paper

To finish with an item of trivia. The Pope want us to stop wasting paper:

… the throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. (§22)

What’s wrong with throwing away paper? It comes from trees grown in managed forests in places like Finland and British Columbia. Overall paper consumption is static, which means it’s declining per capita. There is negligible current pressure from paper on forests, which are busily growing all the time to give us an indefinitely sustainable harvest. There are three ways of dealing with used paper and cardboard: recyling it to make new cardboard boxes in China; burning it for heat; and dumping it in a landfill. The landfill sequesters carbon for as long as it takes the paper to rot, so it’s mildly carbon-negative. The merit of recycling is that it reduces the overall need to cut down Finnish forests, which counts as a benefit, though a very small one. Overall, it’s an absolutely trivial issue, compared even to aluminium cans and metals in batteries. You don’t need technocratic calculus and matrix algebra to see this.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

8 thoughts on “The Francises, Pope and Saint”

  1. Good for you for actually reading it – I haven't and probably won't. You make several good points. The feminism angle actually occurred to me up near the top, where "dominion" is discussed. Women have traditionally been seen as animals (more so and differently than men… though of course all of us are, and primates no less, which I at least find to be generally relevant to all social questions, and imo is a neglected angle). And of course the domination and authority and brutal control issues all play out in gender relations and Church teachings. Funny if he actually missed that?! At any rate, I hold out hope for him in this area … if he's around long enough, I think we may see progress. And that is something to pray for.

    You may well be right that Jesus would frown on air conditioning, I simply don't know. To me what is most radical about Jesus' teachings is more the idea that we should not use things as barriers, as ways to deny and ignore other people. I don't think Jesus would walk by a homeless person without talking to them, f.e. I'm not there yet — I usually don't have much to give, no job or place for them to stay, and it all seems so awkward and futile. I did stop wearing my shirt from a Catholic uni though (a rel went there, not me… but still).

    Finally, from my skimming of the news, it seems he rejects cap and trade? Too bad, but I see his point on an emotional level. Clearly though we should throw the kitchen sink at CC — and if it will work, or help, or contribute, I say we go for it. Carbon tax with dividends, cap and trade … whatever it takes. God gave us brains, let's use them. Heck, maybe it would even excuse … economists? It's a fascinating subject, maybe I will read it.

  2. Well be fair, who at the Vatican is going to raise his hand and say that he is qualified to edit the writings of the infallible?

    1. Encyclical, not proclamation of dogma, ergo fallible. But you are basically right: in a monarchy, it's hard to criticise the king and get away with it. This is why sexual abuse of children has been so much more serious a problem in the Catholic Church than in Protestant churches or Jewish congregations. It's far easier to call out the pastor or rabbi than the priest.

      1. This is why sexual abuse of children has been so much more serious a problem in the Catholic Church than in Protestant churches or Jewish congregations.

        I don't have a source, but I'm pretty certain this is not correct: sexual abuse is about equally common in Catholic parishes and Protestant churches. (The Catholics may have had more teenage homosexual abuse, but I'm fairly certain it wasn't more overall.)

        The difference is that if Baptist church X has a sexual abuse scandal, there's no way to take Baptist church Y's school to pay the lawyer–so the scandal is many small scandals and not structurally harmfull, rather than one big scandal.

  3. Paragraph 171 disses cap-and-trade: " This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require." He's technically wrong about system design – you could have a cap-and-trade system with hard and steeply declining caps. But given the experience of the European ETS, it's reasonable to be sceptical, and I don't hold this against Francis. The deeper problem is that any effective policy is technocratic in one way or another. What we need are Franciscan technocrats, or at least technocrats who have read the guy.

    I may have gone too far over Jesus' views on poverty, which unlike St. Francis' are fragmentary and ambiguous. But the recorded sayings are not likely to have been invented later to help public acceptance. My sense is that they are awkwardly authentic.

    1. I think you’ve also overstepped your boundaries in criticizing the Pope for not changing Catholic doctrine on contraception, unless you can debate the Pope on theological grounds. Contraception is a mortal sin in Catholicism, and if the Pope changed it, it would require an abdication of its entire concept of natural law. The schism that would erupt would be massive.

      One of the attractive and unique things about Catholicism is that it has an immensely complex and coherent worldview and a particular and consistent method of applying the Bible and theology. To argue that contraception is not a sin, and to still be able to label that view “Catholic,” would at a minimum require using the same set of tools and logic as Catholicism generally does, and finding the theological error. Otherwise, you’re just complaining that the Catholic is Catholic. Which might be fine if you’re talking to a non-Catholic, but is really of very little use if you intend the Catholic to change, and still be Catholic.

      1. Here's a shot. The ban on contraception is SFIK based on natural law, which is a matter of reason not revelation. It so happens that the premise that the purpose of sex is procreation is false as a matter of science. Humans not only, observationally, frequently engage in sex for pleasure, like bonobos. We have specific evolutionary adaptations for this. The most striking are concealed ovulation and the menopause, which does not mark the end of sexual receptivity as the Catholic tradition of "canonical age" charmingly has it. Male penis size is also far greater than needed for biological reproduction: gorillas, who live in harems where competition between males takes place separately from mating opportunities, have erect penises round 1.5". It follows that the purpose of sex includes not just procreation but some additional function of social bonding. The leading candidate is of course marriage – cementing a lengthy pair bond for childrearing. (Biologists are scrupulous in pointing out that the Happy Families story is not the only candidate: gang rape is another possibility. It also does not explain homosexuality.)

        I see no reason to treat the Catholic doctrine on contraception – actually, Vatican doctrine, as the worldwide community of practising Catholics generally rejects it – as anything other than ignorant and misogynist obscurantism.

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