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Atonement: Pope Francis and Ecological Sin

05/28/2015 08:56 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

"Everything begins in mystery and ends in politics." Charles Péguy's insight is as fresh today as it was in 1909--especially when it comes to ecological health, Catholic thought, and the politics of climate change. The content of the rhetorical traffic in advance of the promulgation of Pope Francis's ecology encyclical (set for late June)--especially during this past week--confirms the continuing relevance of Péguy's astute observation. Never before, in the history of encyclicals, has there been so much political speculation and reckless bluster ahead of discovering the "mysteries" contained in a papal document.

But topics in ecology and climate change also reveal the scope, credibility, and hospitality of Catholic thought in a unique way--and how Catholic thought can transcend the intellectually lazy ways that we often approach our identity politics. Ecological topics reveal the "essentialist" care required for non-negotiable ideals as well as the "pragmatic" sense to navigate these ideals adroitly as they unfold in history, especially in light of the Gospel. Life is a sacred mystery; and because it is, papal pastoring requires a deft use of all resources--science, philosophy, politics, and much more. This is a normative Catholic approach in all cases and it has been operative for a long time. The difficult part for Catholics, however--especially in the late modern west where the individual will reigns supreme--is "to think with the church," as the recently deceased Cardinal George would say, "in and out of season."

Human complicity in our changing climate amplifies this need. More importantly, it amplifies it by revealing such complicity for what it is: a sin. Climate change is a sin against the Earth and a sin against its poorest inhabitants who will suffer most by it. For his part, Pope Francis can speak with decisive credibility in this regard. He has both the wisdom and skill to resurrect the ancient theology of sin and to situate it naturally in real time for audiences often unaccustomed to such speech. In regards to the upcoming encyclical, this will be fruitful; and responses to anthropogenic climate change are already transcending petty political and social polarities--especially in the church. Still a more urgent approach is needed. To speak in Catholic code, climate change is both a "life" issue and a "justice" issue. It is a place where the "seamless garment" of Cardinal Bernadin meets St. Pope John Paul II's fides et ratio. It is a location where the "informed conscience" of Vatican II meets the "prudential judgment" of St. Thomas Aquinas. My guess is that in addition to offering hope and counsel about care of the Earth and its poorest inhabitants, Pope Francis will also expose the entrenchment of self-serving political commitments for what they are: cheap impediments that obstruct the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit.

What is ironic here is that, while Francis' off-the-papal-cuff-seeming rhetorical style has provoked many Catholics (for well or ill), his upcoming encyclical is likely to be the most prudent, scientifically careful, and widely pastoral of his papacy. It should make his main detractors happy that he and the scientists of the Pontifical Academy have done their research soberly and systematically. Instead, these critics seem to rage and scramble; but they also seem to know that the jig is up. After all, one can only listen to the scientists at the Heartland Institute for so long. So, we begin to see the sin for the shape that it is: an inordinate devotion to low regulation, economic libertarian capitalism. Sinners of this stripe are blinded not only by the confirmation bias that defends the baser forms of capitalism at every turn, but by older patterns that we all know well: by getting and spending at any cost, by the myopic narcissism of exclusive self-interest, and by good old hubris. Sure, like the people at the Heartland Institute, Pope Francis may not be a climate expert (he is, after all, only a trained chemist); but he is an expert on sin.

He is also an expert on reconciliation, which in all cases is the more important thing. Well known for his theology of mercy--and his image of the church as a "field hospital" for sinners--Pope Francis will likely not spend much time in the encyclical haranguing detractors, deniers, or those out to make a buck. He will likely applaud and encourage, as his predecessors did, not only ethical and political solutions to this crisis, but also the wealth of market and entrepreneurial solutions that are available and developing in response to the crisis, solutions that are, unfortunately, often impeded by the choke-hold that the fossil fuel industry exerts upon all the world.

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis also has a deep pastoral interest in ecological health. His encyclical, moreover, will disclose that a Catholic concern with ecology and its fundamentally sacred character is not a late-hour, 21st century development. To the contrary: it has long been a cause championed, from the earliest days of the church, by a radically diverse group of Catholics. More importantly, Pope Francis connects this issue to the poor with whom even the astronomically wealthy share the earth, the poor who Pope Francis loves like Jesus does--with vehemence, audacity, and authenticity.

Something, then, for which to hope as the church prepares for its upcoming golden jubilee--a Holy Year of Mercy that begins just when the IPCC meets in Paris next December: may the undeniable interconnectedness between natural and human ecologies inspire us to restore right relationship with creation. May we listen well to Pope Francis when he speaks about the gravity of ecological sin and the need for systematic, global atonement. May we have mercy on the poor and on the home that has been graciously given to us all: our Earth. Amen.