There is a healthy discussion now underway within Catholic circles asking the improbable question: What is the message of Laudato Si, the pope's new encyclical on the environment? The political left feels not just vindicated but triumphant. Global warming is not just sound science; it is dogma. Conservative skeptics are therefore not just ignorant; they are immorally ignorant.
Last week, Rush Limbaugh argued that "what this papal encyclical is saying is that every Catholic should vote for the Democrat Party. ... That's what it is. How else do you interpret it when the pope comes out and sounds like Al Gore on global warming and climate change?"
Rush is correct, sadly. There are numerous unnecessary and annoying genuflections to liberal political ideology. Pope Francis proclaims there is "a very solid scientific consensus" on global warming, which "represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. ... Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades." This is simply not true. There never was scientific consensus. The science is so shaky the left no longer agitates on global warming, choosing instead the safe harbor of "climate change." The pope insists on the "urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced" and "enforceable international agreements are urgently needed."
Bureaucrats at the United Nations will surely spread his complaint that "international negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good. Francis quotes his predecessor Pope Benedict that powerful economic systems must be held accountable for the "the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources."
Francis is now the poster child for radical environmentalism the world over.
But in a piece for Catholic Culture, Philip Lawler suggests that this document should not be painted as a platform for leftist action. The paeans to liberal political orthodoxy distract from a far more important message. Laudato Si is an ecumenical plea for deeper spiritual reflection. This all is lost on -- or ignored by -- a thoroughly politicized secular media. The sound bites awarding political points to the Democrats are the alpha and the omega.
And yet there are also passages in this encyclical that could be interpreted as endorsements of the social conservative agenda, and you can bet your bottom euro that the national news media will refuse to discuss them. One theme that has been consistently expressed in the pope's sermons and messages is a condemnation of the "throw-away culture," not just the quick exploitation and disposal of material goods, but the exploitation of people -- the notion that human life can be simply thrown away when pregnancies are inconvenient or senior citizens have lost any ability to contribute. The pope laments the green extreme that views humans as a threat to the global ecosystem, and that our population as excessive.
Questioning an excessive consumerism has been the purview of the political left, but Francis awards the issue to traditional conservatives -- if they want it. The Holy Father calls on us to focus on and nourish our spiritual lives. In what Lawler calls "the most endearing passage of the encyclical," he offers one very simple practical way: "One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals."
The messages of Pope Francis have been afflicted by a confounding incoherence his entire papacy, with the Vatican having constantly to explain what it was he meant when he said this, or wrote that. Laudato Si is another manifestation of this confusion. It is a beautiful tapestry marred by political graffiti.