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In Church of Climate Change, Good Catholics Must Practise and Preach

And, why Harper's economic evangelism contradicts everything the Church now stands for.

Ian Gill 25 Jul

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

I have been trying hard lately to have a come-to-Jesus moment about climate change.

I made a pilgrimage to Rome in April but I piqued too early. It wasn't 'til June that the Vatican revealed its thinking linking consumerism, capitalism and the wanton destruction of God's green earth. By then I'd returned to North America and was whiling away the first weekend of summer in the Hamptons, where they know a thing or two about getting and spending.

This week, it was Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's turn to buddy up to the world's biggest belief machine. At the Vatican, along with dozens of other civic leaders, he put his name, and ours, to a "bold climate agreement" with a papal imprimatur -- in the hope, presumably, that whether or not all roads lead to Rome, perhaps the path to climate salvation extends from it.

Well, maybe.

Here in Vancouver, birthplace not of Christ, but anyway Greenpeace, I have searched for signs that Rome's encyclical on the environment hasn't accidentally been tossed in the recyclical here in our self-styled Greenest City on Earth. The signs are not promising.

"The Gospel is meant to be lived on its feet -- taken places," offered Fr. Eugenio Aloisio at a recent Sunday mass in East Vancouver's Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, which seemed like a logical place to listen out for a local interpretation of Laudato Si', the encyclical otherwise known as Praise Be: On Care for Our Common Home.

After all, the Pope took his name from the divine champion of the natural world, Saint Francis, although judging by the homilies emanating from the eponymous church on Napier Street, East Van is a long way from Assisi. Our pastor has offered little more than a passing reference to the encyclical, and no exhortations to parishioners to change their ways. The Gospel, at least that part of it that relates to climate change, has clay feet (Daniel 2; 31-33) in my neighbourhood.

Trickle-down ecology

Up at the devoutly LEED Gold certified offices of the Archdiocese of Vancouver at West 33rd and Willow, the B.C. Catholic newspaper put a link to Laudato Si' on its website and has reprinted some news and commentary from elsewhere, but if our archdiocese's half-million faithful are going to be stirred into action, it won't be from anything they've read so far in B.C. Catholic.

"It may take months, even years before it trickles down," Paul Schratz, communications director of the archdiocese, tells me. Meanwhile, Naomi Klein reports from the Vatican that one suggestion emerging during her high-profile visit there after the release of Laudato Si' was to mount a three year synod "to educate church members about this new theology of interconnection and 'integral ecology.'" There was also talk of "taking the church on the road" and a "people's pilgrimage" for the planet, which frankly sounds more immediate, more appealing, and a lot less bureaucratic than holding a three-year think tank while the world, if not Rome itself, continues to burn.

Meanwhile, "the iron is hot," Schratz assures me, made more so by Robertson's visit to the Vatican, which is "a welcome motivation for us [i.e. Catholics in Vancouver] to take some actions." It's just too early to say what those actions will be, he says. Since there are 1.2 billion Catholics doing good and evil on Earth, it is not unreasonable to conclude that tying their fear of God to actions focused on positive social and environmental change can only be a good thing, when and if it actually happens.

And it's not just God-botherers who should take heart, and heed, from the most impressive puff of smoke in living memory, Pope Francis.

"The Pope's status as a son of Argentina and Latin America is key," writes E.J. Dionne, who covered the Vatican for The New York Times in the '80s. "His radical language about poverty is the language of the progressive wing of the Church in his region," and, just as importantly, represents a real break with conservative popes Paul and Benedict. So liberation theology, which urged Christians to take on the economic injustices of Latin America and to "battle the privileged," Dionne writes, has finally come into its own after half a century in the shadows.

Writing in The American Prospect just before the encyclical flew off the balcony of the Vatican, Dionne described Pope Francis's Catholicism as "counter-cultural... What he preaches is entirely out of tune with the messages of advertisements bombarding contemporary men and women, particularly in the wealthy nations, with the direction of economic globalization and with a culture of instant gratification -- and instant profit.

"He has explicitly denounced 'trickle-down' economics by name. It is, he says, a system that 'expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power,' a view that 'has never been confirmed by the facts' and has created a 'globalization of indifference.'"

Dionne presciently selected another of Francis's many observations on the eve of the release of Laudato Si', when he quoted him thus: "In this [capitalist] system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market... How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless man dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?" How indeed?

God's invisible hand

Critically, this Pope has somehow managed to transcend many people's indifference to religion (Catholics have sworn off in such numbers that the Church has a campaign to get them back:, or even their outright hostility, such that a recent Pew survey put his favourability among Americans at 70 per cent and among American Catholics at an astonishing 90 per cent.

Here in Canada, the 2011 National Household Survey found that our 12.7 million Catholics represent 38.7 per cent of the population, and many new immigrants to Canada are Catholics.

This has electoral implications -- or if it doesn't, it should.

Given the despoliation of just about everything we hold dear in this country at the hands of Stephen Harper's Oppressive Conservatives, is it possible that religion might play a big role in the coming federal election? Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are Catholics (Elizabeth May is an Anglican). Stephen Harper? Let me quote my colleague Andrew Nikiforuk, who wrote in The Tyee three years ago: "Unknown to many Canadians, the Prime Minister belongs to the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical Protestant church with two million members. Alberta, a petro state, is one of its great strongholds on the continent. The church believes that the free market is divinely inspired and that non-believers are 'lost.'"

So if it is going to take perhaps months, maybe years, for the climate change encyclical to trickle down to actions in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, or anywhere else for that matter, here is something Canadian Catholics can do right now and act upon in just a few short weeks: take a vow to not vote for the Tories -- and then don't. No self-respecting and God-fearing Canadian Catholic, not a single one of them, should vote for Harper. Nor should any of them run for his party. Nor should any of them work for his party.

Why? Because Harper's brand of economic and social evangelism directly contradicts virtually everything the Catholic Church now claims to stand for. Reporting in The New York Times when the encyclical came out last month, Justin Gillis wrote: "Polls suggest that evangelicals are the American religious group least likely to believe that global warming is real or caused by humans." On the evidence of Harper's profane and unsacred term in office, Catholics should be the first to cast him out. And since, as Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun reported around the time of the last federal election, about half of Canada's Catholics voted Conservative back then, that would be a lot of casting out by a lot of Tory faithful.

That alone would probably condemn Harper to electoral oblivion, but don't count on it. One by-product of the encyclical has been the predictable backlash by industrialists and right-wing politicians who claim, as summarized by Gillis in the Times, that "the Pope should stick to religion and stop meddling in matters in which he has no competence." Or as David Brooks opined in the Times in a singularly tone deaf column, "The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent -- the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire."

And of course the fight between liberals and conservatives isn't just playing out in Washington D.C. or Ottawa, for that matter. It is taking place inside the Church itself, and not just over climate change. Remembering that this is the same Church that still won't countenance abortion or gay marriage, Naomi Klein wrote that while U.S. bishops welcomed the encyclical, their support for it attracted nothing like "the Catholic firepower expended to denounce the [U.S.] Supreme Court decision a week later" on gay marriage. "This battle of wills may be the real reason such eclectic outsiders [Klein was identified the Holy See press office as a 'secular Jewish feminist'] are being invited inside this cloistered world. We're here because many powerful Church insiders simply cannot be counted upon to champion Francis's transformative climate message."

And when you think about it, history hasn't been kind to transformative Catholic messages, or messengers, dating back to the very first encyclical, Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of Labour, in which Pope Leo XIII wrote in 1891 about unions and workers' rights, and somewhat paradoxically, the rights of owners to hold private property. "European capitalists and socialists alike cried foul," wrote Laurie Goodstein in the Times. "Why should we listen, they fumed, to a Pope's pronouncements on economics and politics?" In 1963, warnings of nuclear disaster were contained in Pope John XXIII's Pacem in Terris. Populorum Progressio was Paul IV's 1967 challenge to wealthy nations to help develop poor nations. Economic inequality stemming from globalization was a theme in Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate as recently as 2009. Let's just say that in calling out bad labour practices, or sounding the alarm over nuclear proliferation, unequal development in the global south, and inequality more generally as a consequence of globalization, the Church's return on investment has been mixed, and its behaviour complicit.

Hell and high water

It is at such a time as this, of course, that one is tempted to go in search less of Christ, but of Christopher, as in Hitchens, who was always so clear-minded about the contributions of religion to social progress. The bugger went and died on us, of course, and has no doubt ascended to Heaven as was his wish, but at least he lives on YouTube, where you can still find him debating whether the Catholic Church has ever been a force for good in the world. Back in 2009, in just such a debate, he reminded his British audience that Pope John Paul II apologized in 2000 for 20 centuries worth of sins, and "begged forgiveness for, among other things, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of the Jewish people, injustice towards women [that's half the human race right there], the forced conversion of indigenous peoples, especially in South America, the African slave trade, the admission that Galileo was right, and for silence during Hitler's Final Solution, or Shoah."

It is worth remembering, in other words, that the Church doesn't come to any issue with clean hands. It is riven with its own contradictions and institutional prejudices and has a history that is harder to live down than most. It is also an immensely wealthy organization, and if you add in the assets of its congregants -- 17 per cent of the entire population of the world -- it and they are a global economic force to be reckoned with. Maybe, just maybe, it is on the issue of economic development that the first Pope from the developing world can collect on the "true ecological debt," as he puts it, amassed by countries like Canada through "commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries (!) over long periods of time." (The exclamation point is mine, not the Pope's).

And maybe the way that will occur is less through homilies and solar steeples, but through leading the world in divesting from fossil fuels. "The Pope's statement is a godsend," said Bob Massie, an Episcopal priest in the U.S. and a champion of divestment. The Global Catholic Climate Movement, meanwhile, expects a wave of divestment demands and, according to one of its members, "it will be very hard for Catholic universities to counter divestment asks quoting the encyclical."

But the big caveat emptor that attends Laudato Si’, however bold and brilliant it is, is that we ordinary papists and pagans may remain hypnotized in the same ''crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power'' -- not to mention religious power -- that created the same ''globalization of indifference'' that Pope Francis now decries, but that his church has hitherto tolerated, abetted and widely embraced. The trickle down of bold ideas may prove to be no more beneficial to the poor and to the environment than trickle-down economics has proven to be.

In other words, the absence of an immediate Mass movement is not an excuse for inaction. The encyclical, glory be, is just another whistle stop on the pathway to social, economic and environmental redemption. No matter how long it takes or how watered down the Pope's messages are when they make it pew-side, there is nothing to stop people, and institutions, divesting right now -- divesting their portfolios of fossil fuel companies and divesting Parliament of Stephen Harper and his band of evangelicals and Catholic apostates.

Me? I wandered off the road to Damascus long ago though I would argue with Christopher Hitchens that not all the Nazarene's ideas were bad ones. To wit, Jesus said, nearing the end of His life on the last day of Passover: "If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink," (John, 7:37). On October 19, I will be raising a glass to all those good Catholics who have cast Harper asunder. But if there's a single Catholic who shows up at church after the election and confesses they voted Conservative, consider yourself lucky that I'm not your priest, because my message to you would be simple. Go to Hell.  [Tyee]

Read more: Elections, Environment

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