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The Real Drama Behind Pope Francis' Encyclical

06/17/2015 01:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016
Andrew Medichini/AP

It's a made-for-television-news drama, featuring a benevolent new pope from the Global South as its hero. He defies expectations, champions the poor, defends the environment, and throws caution to the wind when he releases a revolutionary encyclical begging humanity to halt its march down calamity's path. Old-line guardians, fearing chaos and church splits, wistfully long for past pontiffs, who supposedly towed the line and colluded in a conspiracy of silence.

Our protagonist even veers close to the Marxist edge with quotes like this: "It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness, both individual and collective, are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence."

But the neat narrative -- constructed in the minds of secular media moguls ignorant of religion and craving a "good story" -- suddenly unravels. Pope Francis did not say that. Pope John Paul II wrote it in 1989 for his message on the World Day of Peace. He also wrote this in 2002 along with Eastern Orthodoxy's Patriarch, Bartholomew I: "If we examine carefully the social and environmental crisis which the world community is facing, we must conclude that we are still betraying the mandate God has given us: to be stewards called to collaborate with God in watching over creation in holiness and wisdom." Pope Benedict, often portrayed as the humorless enforcer of traditional dogma, urged the diplomatic corps: "Environmental protection and the connection between fighting poverty and fighting climate change are important areas for the promotion of integral human development." And the supposedly sullen U.S. Catholic bishops wrote this in 2001: "Inaction and inadequate or misguided responses to climate change will likely place even greater burdens on already desperately poor peoples."

Read through Marybeth Lorbiecki's Following Francis: John Paul II's Call for Ecological Action and a host of other books. Fact is, the current pope -- whom I love -- is hardly innovative in the substance of his teachings. His pronouncements on the poor and the environment hearken back to Christianity's early theologians, otherwise known as the "Church Fathers," who are revered in both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Elizabeth Theokritoff brings their teachings to light in Living in God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology.

Our craving for dramatic arcs clouds the real, more complex, and more fascinating story leading up to this encyclical. The Catholic Church, which has been friendly to science since at least the 19th century, has developed a set of social teachings more aligned with social democracy than anything else. Several of its orders have launched climate change initiatives -- including the Franciscan Action Network and EcoJesuit -- and The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change has been in operation since 2006. Pope Francis now stands at the center of that larger drama and is an excellent actor. I say that as a full complement: Good leaders -- such as Saint Francis, Gandhi, King, Mandela, Lincoln, and Churchill -- grasp that they're involved in real-life theater, where gestures participate in the substance.

But, in his heart, Pope Francis is a... pope. He is not an American policymaker yearning to leave his own mark. As Rachel Lu points out: "He is a moral and spiritual authority, especially for Catholics (although the rest of the world also seems to take quite an interest)." As such, he sees himself as the guardian of a 2,000-year tradition to which his personal convictions must yield. His heroes are self-effacing Jesuit martyrs, not assertive CEO's. He views self-importance as a character flaw and would request absolution for it in the confessional.

For all his tweeting and media savvy, Pope Francis is a pre-modernist, which makes him uniquely relevant in a modern world drunk on the creed of individual autonomy.

The real doctrinal innovators would gut the clout of a papal encyclical, an authoritative document which brings that long tradition to bear on current debates. Maureen Mullarkey, a practicing Catholic who would normally refer to the pontiff as "Holy Father," was incredibly "innovative" when she anticipated the pope's message in January and insulted him in her blog for First Things: "He is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist ... Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical -- and now meteorological -- thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements." She seemed unaware that she was also insulting the now-canonized John Paul II as she plowed on: "Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda."

So-called "conservative" Catholics quickly distanced themselves from Mullarkey, but the deniers among them cannot escape their innovative bind. Former Republican Senator and devout Catholic Rick Santorum recently locked himself in a multi-layered box: "The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we're good at, which is theology and morality." Not only was he thwarting Saint John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis; he was also yanking the rug out from under all the climate-denier conspiracy theories, which hold that a white-smocked cabal has plotted to rob the poor of their oil-company jobs.

Santorum wrote off the scientists when he denied human-induced climate change. He now has nowhere to run.

This larger, true life drama of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church is often lost because we try to cram the debates of this resilient, ancient institution into American liberal-conservative categories. An organization that weathered hostile Roman emperors, the collapse of Western civilization, the Dark Ages, plagues, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, anti-clerical revolutions, and institutionalized atheism deserves to be taken on its own terms. Perhaps Catholic intellectuals can help us by reining in their over-confessions. They only feed the beast in their misplaced humility. The Reverend Thomas Reese, S.J., missed it when he said this of the pope's encyclical on National Public Radio: "It's nice -- for once the Catholic Church is on the side of science."

Rephrase that, Father. Your church is on the side of science for the umpteenth time. Pat yourself on the back and wear your Roman collar with pride.