ar be it from me—not being a Roman Catholic—to tell Catholics what they should think of their pontiff. But, just as a brief amicus curiae (so to speak), I want to note that I feel a wholly unqualified admiration for Francis; and nothing he has done, said, or written since assuming office has had any effect on me but to deepen that esteem. I have to say also that I am utterly baffled by the anxiety, disappointment, or hostility he clearly inspires in certain American Catholics of a conservative bent (using “conservative” in its distinctly American acceptation). And frankly I find it no more inexplicable in its most extreme expressions—which at their worst verge on sheer hysteria—than in its mildest—an almost morbid oversensitivity to every faint hint of hidden meanings in every word, however innocuous, that escapes the pope’s lips or pen.
Mind you, I was well disposed to Jorge Bergoglio before his elevation to the papacy. His reputation in Argentina as a priest and bishop who not only mouthed pious platitudes about poverty, but who actually lived and worked with the poor, was impressive, to say the least, as was his refusal of the perquisites and privileges of ecclesial rank. His eagerness not only to form close friendships with Orthodox and Protestant leaders, but also to act as an advocate on behalf of non-Catholic Christian bodies to a sometimes unsympathetic Argentine government set him apart. His close relations with the Jewish communities of Buenos Aires and his frankly avowed contempt for the anti-Semitism of much of the Catholic far right went far beyond mere symbolic deference, and spoke rather of a genuine and deep reverence. And his approach to other faiths was always marked by unmistakable magnanimity and charity. If I were a Catholic, it would probably be enough for me to know that a man of such enormous personal sanctity had been installed at St. Peter’s.
Moreover, as an Orthodox, I probably have no choice but to think well of Francis. He has on the whole a very good name in the Christian East, and not only for past services rendered: his long history of cordial ties to the Orthodox Church, especially to the Russian Cathedral in Buenos Aires; his close friendship with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; and so on. It is also on account of the sympathetic intelligence he has exhibited in his dealings with the Christian East since his election, even in some of his smallest acts. For instance, it has not gone unnoticed in the East that he refers to himself in public almost never as “the pope,” but only as “the bishop of Rome”: a habit that most Western Christians are scarcely likely to notice, or to regard as anything more than a curious eccentricity or precious affectation, but that many Eastern Christians take as a historically astute and generous gesture. (But perhaps that is neither here nor there.)
nyway, my perplexity achieved a kind of critical mass after the promulgation of the most recent papal encyclical. For myself, I can quite literally find not a single sentence or sentiment in Laudato Si to which it seems to me possible for any Christian coherently to object. I acknowledge that it is not a work of great dialectical subtlety or systematic rigor, of the sort Benedict XVI tended to produce. But the last pope was something of an outlier: It is exceedingly rare (to say the least) for a man of the theological and philosophical sophistication of Joseph Ratzinger to occupy the Roman See. Laudato Si is a pastoral piece, quite substantial as a work of moral instruction and spiritual exhortation, but not a treatise in the way that, say, Spe Salvi was. Style aside, though, I simply cannot find an assertion anywhere in its pages that strikes me as anything other than either a plain statement of fact or a reasonable statement of Christian principle.
What, after all, are its “controversial” claims (explicit or implied)? That global capitalism has not proved a blessing in every quarter of the world? That, in fact, in many places, the operations of transnational capital—far from extending access to property, creating general prosperity, promoting democratic institutions, or advancing the causes of law and justice—destroy functioning local economies and communities, sustain and deepen poverty among those capital reduces to the commodity of cheap labor, exploit unjust labor systems, support despotisms, take advantage of conditions in regions too poor to impose or enforce environmental protections (for their ecosystems or their peoples), and are often complicit in the procedural abuse of persons who can hope for no legal redress? That the industrial devastation of a thriving local ecology or neighborhood, or the loss of fragile habitats and biological diversity, is to be lamented and, if possible, averted? That among the cultural concomitants of late modern capitalism are a morally corrosive materialism, a libertarian individualism inimical to Christian virtue, and a consumerist ethos of interminable acquisition and waste that is not only spiritually debilitating, but also—from any vantage informed by the teachings of Christ—morally execrable? That a technological, industrial, or commercial advance is not necessarily an instance of “progress,” and may even constitute a step towards barbarism? That bigger is not always better? That secularist, relativist, materialist late modernity is a seamless garment, and that our voluntarist culture of consumption and disposal is not merely accidentally associated with late modernity’s “culture of death,” but rather belongs to it essentially, as the inevitable moral dimension of a single indissoluble spiritual grammar and moral metaphysics?
I suppose that in America, such sentiments might sound a bit outrageous. We tend to think that all enterprise is of a piece, that the small business that produces a useful product and creates needed jobs exists in some sort of inviolable continuum with global corporate entities of every kind, and that we cannot affirm the former without defending the latter. Even “conservative” Christians who deplore the cultural costs of late modernity treat any critique of its obvious material basis as practically blasphemous. But everywhere else in the world, those same criticisms would simply, and correctly, be described as “true.” They would even be regarded as simply “Catholic.” Laudato Si positively trembles from all the echoes it contains of G. K. Chesterton, Vincent McNabb, Hilaire Belloc, Elizabeth Anscombe, Dorothy Day, E. F. Schumacher, Leo XIII, John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and (above all) Romano Guardini; its native social and political atmosphere is that rich combination of Christian socialism, social democratism, subsidiarism, distributism, and anti-materialism that constitutes the best of the modern Catholic intellectual tradition’s humane alternative to all the technologisms, libertarianisms, corporatisms, and totalitarianisms that in their different ways reduce humanity to nothing more than appetent machines and creation to nothing more than industrial resources.
f course, I know that a large part of the objection to the encyclical is its central concern with environmental ethics. For one thing, Francis has the temerity to take the science of climate change seriously, which is the sort of thing that can send a Wall Street Journal conservative frantically groping for his smelling salts, but which I cannot help thinking is slightly saner than clinging to the politically inflected obfuscations of the data that so many in the developed world use to calm their digestions and consciences. But, leaving that aside, I again have to ask what the encyclical says that could possibly offend against reason. That the incessant pollution of soil and water by the heavy metals and other toxins produced by the monstrous consumerist voracity of our way of life is a devastating reality? That local ecologies despoiled and poisoned are impossible to recover, and that the poor of the developing world constitute the vast majority of its immediate victims? That stewardship of creation is a long-acknowledged moral requirement of Catholic Christians? That creation declares God’s glory and is an intrinsic good, and that only a depraved moral imagination allied to a petrified heart could fail to see the moral claim made on us by other creatures?
Who knows? America is such an odd combination of Christian pieties and post-Christian habits of thought. What other country could produce persons, for instance, who believe it possible to be both Christian and libertarian (which makes me think of Enoch Soames, the “Catholic diabolist”)? With our occult belief in the possibility of limitless “wealth creation,” how do we dare acknowledge the limits of nature, human or cosmic? But Francis cannot really concern himself with our peculiarities and perversities. For all its economic power, American Catholicism is only one minor and rather aberrant party within the worldwide communion; and Francis is writing for his Church, not for America. Of course, it is possible that one day a Christian view of reality will take root even here, in this the first constitutionally and culturally post-Christian land in Western history. But—and, again, not being a Roman Catholic, I may have no right to say this—I do not think it is incumbent on the pope to hold his tongue until it does.