Laudate Deum (“Praise God”), Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the climate crisis, released in Rome today, has at least one great strength. It’s shorter than Laudato Si’ (“Praised Be”), his 2015 encyclical on much the same subject. That may sound like snark, but it’s the opposite. The latter was a bloated document of nearly 38,000 words. The new text is a leaner, far more effective effort of barely 7,500 words. Which means that ordinary people may actually read it.
As with nearly everything Francis says and does, Laudate Deum is a mixed drink. In six sections and seventy-three paragraphs, Francis outlines his views on our “global climate crisis,” the negative impact of today’s technocratic mindset, the weakness of relevant international structures in moderating the crisis, the progress of climate conferences, “what to expect from COP28 in Dubai,” and, lastly, “spiritual motivations.”
Few would dispute the pope’s claim that we now face serious environmental issues of waste and pollution with climatic effect, and that wealthy, developed nations are the main culprits. Laudate Deum’s first section—“The Global Climate Crisis”—is an impressively argued data dump supporting the case, though Francis too impatiently dismisses contrary views as “scarcely reasonable.” He makes a regrettable gaffe in resurrecting the memory of Covid-19 and its lesson that “what happens in one part of the world has repercussions on the entire planet.” That may be so, but the “science” behind the 2020–2021 Covid hysteria and lockdowns proved to be flawed or flatly false, resulting in thousands of needless deaths and the systematic bullying of anyone, including veteran scientists, who questioned Covid policies.
In Covid’s aftermath, the appeal of “following the science” as a slam-dunk argument for anything, including climate change, has understandably worn thin. On the other hand, Francis does note that “in an attempt to simplify reality, there are those who would place responsibility [for climate damage] on the poor,” or that “everything is the fault of the poor” because they have too many children. Exactly so. That’s an implicit motive in every First World population-control aid package to Third and Fourth World nations.
The document’s second section—“A Growing Technocratic Paradigm”—is the strongest. It’s well-written and persuasively presented. And it’s consistent with the teaching of all of Francis’s most recent predecessors. A sample is paragraphs 23 and 24:
It is chilling to realize that the capacities expanded by technology “have given those with the knowledge and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used . . . In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it”. . . . Not every increase in power represents progress for humanity. We need only think of the “admirable” technologies that were employed to decimate populations, drop atomic bombs and annihilate ethnic groups. There were historical moments where our admiration [for] progress blinded us to the horror of its consequences. But that risk is always present, because “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience . . . We stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.” It is not strange that so great a power in such hands is capable of destroying life, while the mentality proper to the technocratic paradigm blinds us from and does not permit us to see this extremely grave problem of present-day humanity.
Those lines are clearly true and could have been written by every pope since John XXIII; Benedict XVI’s collection of thoughts on the environment, The Garden of God, is a prime example. It’s a credit to Francis that he offers his own insights so emphatically and so well.
The text is on shakier ground when it argues that “globalization favors spontaneous cultural interchanges, greater mutual knowledge and processes of integration of peoples, which end up provoking a multilateralism ‘from below’ and not simply one determined by the elites of power.” In fact, globalization has served power elites extraordinarily well, diminishing the real power exercised by and within individual nations. Francis wisely criticizes the idea of “a world authority concentrated in one person or in an elite with excessive power.” He argues instead for more effective international organizations with the muscle to serve the common good, end hunger and poverty, and defend fundamental human rights.
The trouble is that, to date, nearly all such organizations have been heavily influenced or dominated by—no surprise—power elites; elites with the resources to shape policy on population control, to undermine traditional sexual norms and the family, and to promote abortion as a “fundamental right.” The Vatican, despite or perhaps because of its accumulated historical experience, seems to have a congenital weakness for world organizations; they have the vague scent of Christendom’s good old days.
The most disappointing quality to Laudate Deum is that, from paragraph No. 2 through paragraph No. 60, it could have been drafted by any intelligent non-believer working for a secular NGO. Jesus makes an appearance in paragraph No. 1, then goes on hiatus until paragraph No. 64. In a text of 7,500 words, the word “Jesus” appears three times; “God,” 11 times; “Church,” once; “Catholic,” twice; “biblical,” once; “Bible,” once; and “Christian,” once. In a sense, noting this is unfair, since the text’s final section—“Spiritual Motivations”—is actually quite beautiful and relies on a variety of scriptural references. But Laudate Deum is an essentially secular document with a religious addendum.
It can be argued that there’s a purpose to this, a specific kind of “accompaniment.” Francis seeks to speak a common ethical language to a very diverse global audience. But it ends up as an exercise in “me too” theology, blessing the direction of mainstream opinion already stated well elsewhere and largely shaped and moderated by the very same powerful people whom Francis rightly hopes to admonish and perhaps win over. Those in power and their media will gladly thank him . . . and then disregard any distinct residue of Christianity in the text. And there’s very little such residue; in fact, there’s nothing confidently evangelical about the entire document.
Which, sadly, seems to be a pattern for the entire pontificate.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?