Francis & political illusion

by Maureen Mullarkey

There is a great temptation today to confuse sociological evolution with spiritual progress, and Christians are the first to succumb to that temptation. Nevertheless, the Bible expressly tells us that the history of mankind ends in judgment. It does not give place to the Kingdom.
Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom

Conformity to the world is expressed by the passion for politics, by the politicizing of Christian thinking, manners and action.
Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment

In the cap and bells of Flip Wilson’s Church of What’s Happening Now, Pope Francis is readying an encyclical on climate change. He will address the world’s latest mutation of the grail quest: human ecology. Abandoning nuance for apocalyptic alarmism (“If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”), Francis has signaled the tenor of his utterance.

Pope Francis is imprudent.
Pope Francis is imprudent.

It comes as no surprise. Handwriting has been on the wall along the Viale Vaticano from the get-go. At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis revealed himself to be fastidiously attuned to image. He refused to give communion in public ceremonies lest he be photographed giving the sacrament to the wrong kind of sinner. So, when he agreed to pose between two well-known environmental activists and brandish an anti-fracking T-shirt, we believed what we saw.

It was a portentous image. Press toads hopped to their keyboards to correct the evidence of our lying eyes. Francis was neither for nor against fracking, you see. Nothing of the sort. He was simply using a photo-op to assert blameless solidarity with the victims of ecological injustice. (Both a decisive definition of such injustice and its particular victims went unspecified.)

If that restyling were true, then the more fool Francis. But Francis is not a fool. He is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.

Ronald Gunther. Soap Box Orator (c. 1935). Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma.
Ronald Gunther. Soap Box Orator (c. 1935). Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma.

Later this year, Francis will take his sandwich board to the United Nations General Assembly, that beacon of progress toward the Kingdom. Next will come a summit of world religions—a sort of Green Assisi—organized to lend moral luster to an upcoming confederacy of world improvers in Paris. In the words of Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Francis means “to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion.”

There is a muddle for you. The bishop asserts a causal relation between two undefined, imprecise phenomena. His phrasing is a sober-sounding rhetorical dodge that eludes argument because the meaning is indeterminable.

Ambiguity, like nonsense, is irrefutable. What caliber of scientist speaks this way?

Boris Kustodiev. Festivity for Opening of the 11th Comintern Congress (1920). Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg.
Boris Kustodiev. Festivity for Opening of the 11th Comintern Congress (1920). Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg.

Conscientious concern for the environment is not at issue. Man’s stewardship of the earth’s resources is to be taken with great seriousness. But debate as how best to effect that stewardship is intricate and ongoing. There are hazards in unraveling divergent, often contradictory, ideas and undertakings bundled together by the media as a coherent movement.

Francis serves an environmentalist mindset that, unlike the traditional ethos of conservation, views man as a parasite (Western man in Francis’ marxisant variant) and understands wealth in pre-modern terms as a zero-sum game. It discards the West’s great discovery—realization that wealth can be created. The endgame is transfer of wealth from productive nations to unproductive ones.

Ferdinand Hodler. The Orator (1912). Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
Ferdinand Hodler. The Orator (1912). Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Orthodox environmentalism resents human sovereignty over the earth we inhabit. It begrudges ingenuity in the transactions we invent with nature and with each other. Its radical form, which beckons Francis and Vatican academics, is atavistic, even animist. Discount the gospel gloss. What matters is the spectacle of the Church imitating the world by justifying political agendas based on still-contended data and half-baked Gramscian dogma. Jacques Ellul, writing in the post-war decades, cautioned against introducing political morals into the Church as a springboard for unexamined action:

Proof is of no avail in the face of the sociological trends which bring Christians irrevocably to do what everybody else is doing, and to think what everybody else is thinking.

Man cannot destroy “Creation.” It is not within his power. Nor is “Creation” a willful entity with Doomsday on its mind. Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda. Francis’s loaded abstractions—a planet “exploited by human greed,” a vague “economy of exclusion,” and that old goblin, “the god of money”—echo Reverend Wright’s “A world in need is run by white folks’ greed.” Explicit racial component is absent from Francis’ denunciations. Nevertheless, hearers know which world—First or Third?—prompts papal hostility.

The world is what it has been and will remain. Satan is still the prince of it. And Francis is imprudent.

© First Things (January 15, 2015)

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