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Why might the Vatican suddenly care about climate change?

First, Pope Francis offers the world Laudato Si, his encyclical affirming the science behind climate change and naming our broken economic system as the key issue to fight.

He even invites leftist darling Naomi Klein to the Vatican in case anyone wasn’t sure he was serious about his critique of capitalism.

Then he asks forgiveness for crimes committed by the Catholic church against Native people of the Americas during his visit to Bolivia.

And last week in Paraguay, he calls on young people to rise up and disrupt business as usual.

They wrote a speech for me to give you. But speeches are boring,” Pope Francis said. “Make a mess, but then also help to tidy it up. A mess which gives us a free heart, a mess which gives us solidarity, a mess which gives us hope.”

Activists who have been largely critical of the Catholic Church are left scratching our heads. Is Pope Francis a surprising new ally? Or should we remain suspicious of an organization we’ve known to amass massive amounts of wealth, provide safe harbor to pedophiles, and kill anyone who believes differently (see the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, and missions in the Americas)?

These are the questions I sat with as a Buddhist activist in Rome for a march and convergence celebrating the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

To be clear – I was there to celebrate. I’m grateful to have a world leader like Pope Francis who cares about the planet and is putting some serious social capital on the line to convince others that climate change is an urgent issue.


I just think the Pope’s love for the planet is unlikely to be the only motivation at play when we have a large institution like the Vatican putting its force behind the message.

It’s seductive to think of Pope Francis as a refreshing leader, one magically good person who is using his position of power to change an institution from the inside.

But you don’t get to be Pope by being a wild maverick against the establishment.

In my view, leaders have pretty limited power to buck the systems that put them into power. That’s true even for someone with seemingly “absolute” power like the Pope who leads 2 billion Catholics on this planet.

This was confirmed while I was in Rome. The Faith Rising Convergence heard directly from Father Michael Czerny, the self-described “chief of staff with no staff” to Cardinal Turkson who is one of the Pope’s closest advisors and the lead Cardinal spreading the message of Laudato Si.

An Australian participant asked Father Czerny, “Can the Pope come and tell our Catholic Prime Minister Tony Abbott to get his act together on climate change policy?” (Abbott once called climate change “absolute crap” and his advisor recently described climate change as an attempt to create “a new world order under the control of the UN.“)

Father Czerny was emphatic that the Pope doesn’t have the power we imagine him to. He can’t just show up and decree things to Catholic leaders. His main message was, “It’s you who needs to pass it on.”

It’s challenging to know for sure what is going on in the experiences of other people, much less an institutions like the Vatican made up of many people with related but sometimes competing interests. Yet our practice provides some tools for being mindful of the experiences of others.

The Satipatthana Sutta, also known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, is one of the core texts in Theravada Buddhism. In it, the Buddha teaches his community to contemplate four main areas: the body, feeling tones, mind states, and mental objects.

My teacher Larry Yang brings particular attention to the refrain that is repeated after each of the four teachings. In it, the Buddha instructs us to bring a light but particular attention to our investigation of these four areas. Perhaps the most surprising instruction, given the conflation of inward focus with mindfulness, is this one:

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally.

Here the Buddha teaches a practice of “external mindfulness” where we pay attention to what is going on in the bodies, feelings, mind states, and mental formations of those around us. Sometimes other people are straightforward with us about their internal process, but often we have to do some interpolation and guesswork. And for anyone who has been in abusive or oppressive relationships, we know that sometimes we have to learn to trust our own assessments of what is going on, even when others are actively discounting our experience.

So, why might a sudden interest in climate change be in the Vatican’s best interests?

From the big media release to Cardinal Turkson’s “rock star’s world tour,” it’s clear the Pope is treating the encyclical not just as a pronouncement, but as a campaign. All good campaigns have both their public goals (save the planet) and their organizational building goals (strengthen the base, destabilize threats). That’s true for nonprofits as much as the Catholic Church, so I don’t think I’m saying anything that radical here in guessing that the Vatican has some organizational goals at play here as well.

Particularly, to make such an about face on the science of climate change, I think Pope Francis has to be talking internally about goals that are more traditional in the Catholic Church, which have long included strengthening its power.

What might those internal goals be?

Possible goal #1: If you believe the climate science, people are already being affected, and the devastation is only going to get worse. People turn to religion in those times, seeking meaning for their suffering. With Catholicism’s growing power in those countries most affected by climate change, it could be a long term strategy for conversion of more Catholics, extending the College of Cardinals’ decision to select an Argentinian pope in the first place.

Possible goal #2: An attack on climate change attacks two of the biggest secular empires – the United States and China – who are both the worst polluters and who until recently have been the least engaged in global climate talks. Maybe it’s part of a more behind the scenes plan to destabilize world powers and reassert the Church’s role as world leader.

Possible goal #3: I also wouldn’t rule out that it’s a bit of subterfuge – it wouldn’t be the first time folks make a big splash about one thing so you don’t notice the other unrelated thing they are hoping to keep secret (for instance, the Vatican’s mass collection of European properties bought with Mussolini’s fascist money).

You might have other ideas given your vantage point of the Vatican, or think these are a load of crap based on other information or beliefs you have. My point is not to offer these as fact, so much as to affirm that there are always a mix of motivations at play, and that we can develop our external mindfulness skills to help us better make sense of them..

Even as I look at the other motives possibly at play here, I’m WILDLY EXCITEDLY about the numbers of people Pope Francis might move into action on climate change. And with his most recent encouragement to “make a mess,” I hope those include action that moves beyond symbolic marches to directly interrupt the systems that are destroying the planet.

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Comments (9)

  • fern

    Golly, where to begin. I’m a 75 yo lapsed Catholic who has been practicing Buddhism for about 10 years. Also a recovering alcoholic with 31 years of Step work (one led to the other). I had been horrified by the actions of the Catholic Church. Horrified by the Church’s and the US’s political/capital involvement in the Americas.
    Do you believe that this wild about face is motivated by the Church’s self-seeking? Well, sure maybe. But I choose to believe that it is honestly motivated. And it will have a huge impact. Actually, Jesus was a Socialist. That’s what scared Rome and Israel.

  • Murray Reiss

    Could you say a bit more about how your practice of “external mindfulness” led to the three possible goals you list? I don’t get the connection.

  • Dukkha Earl

    A very refreshing change from those in thrall to the narrative that the pontificate Pope Fluffy represents a genuine sea change from the regime of Pope Palpatine. The Church of Constantine has been, since its inception, about one thing only — power in the secular realm. The primary difference is in the quality of the PR flaks representing the “Holy See”.

    No one can truly care about climate change without confronting the issue of overpopulation. The continued opposition of the Roman Church to birth control totally belies its newfound concern with the environment

    Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
    ― Denis Diderot

  • Mushim

    Thanks for such a great think piece, Dawn. I’m not Catholic, and whereas I don’t discount possible political agendas that the Catholic Church may have, and that you’ve suggested here, for me it boils down to something pretty simple. If global climate change wreaks havoc on Planet Earth, destroying whole ecosystems and plunging all civilizations into chaos, wealthy people will, of course, be able to fortress themselves and hold out a helluva lot longer than vulnerable poor people, but, nevertheless, we’ll eventually all go down like passengers on the Titanic. Catholics, Muslims, Jews, atheists, indigenous faith peoples, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and so on. The Catholic Church can look out for its own (Catholics) by calling for a planet-wide global climate change initiative or set of initiatives. We don’t have to believe in the Buddhist theories of “interbeing” to see that, regarding the environment, the planet is an interconnected whole. As bee colonies collapse and tiny bits of plastic fill the oceans and are eaten by fish, as we continue to spray and smear chemical substances on our bodies and into our hair, as the wealth disparity between ultra-rich and desperately poor continues to grow, Catholics worldwide will be and are seriously impacted. It doesn’t matter if my neighbor is Catholic and I’m Buddhist. We and our children are threatened by global climate change.

  • Site de Linhares

    Very interesting your article!

    I agree with your point of view, it really must be very important to them.

  • Murray Reiss

    “No one can truly care about climate change without confronting the issue of overpopulation.” Actually, Naomi Klein doesn’t seem to either, at least when I heard her at a talk she gave here on Salt Spring Island last fall. Asked about overpopulation’s role in climate change, rather than confront the issue she reframed it as one of overconsumption on the part of the wealthier nations. Of course, the real solution to both overpopulation and overconsumption can be found in the movement for 4More Planets, as laid out in this Climate Action Performance Poem of that name, to be found at

  • fern

    The movement in the 60s or 70s was ZPG, Zero Population Growth. You can see where that has gone. World population has gone from 2 billion to 7.5 Billion in my lifetime. What must happen for humans to take this seriously? Sadly, many here in states see this all as End Times. Also sadly, they will take all of us with them. At least the Pope is opening the floor for discussion.

  • Dawn Haney

    Hi everyone, thanks for your comments and continued discussion! A few additional thoughts:

    A climate + labor organizing friend posted this quote over the weekend: “We’ve done the analysis, and it turns out that the collapse of civilization and the extinction of our species is bad for union organizing.” – Ernie Pacheco, CWA. It definitely made me think about this article, and that the collapse of civilization and extinction of humans is bad for the Catholic faith. It’s possible they finally ran the numbers :)

    I found it interesting the turn toward population control that several folks have made here. It’s a part of the encyclical I haven’t fully grappled with here, where the Pope doubles down on the church’s anti-abortion and anti-birth control stance. While I disagree with their stance, being staunchly pro-choice myself, I do agree that population growth is not the primary cause of climate change. Just looking at the top polluters, we see countries with highly restrictive population control measures like China (with a 0.5% population growth rate), and countries with near stagnant population growth like the US (0.7%) and Russia (0.2%). A focus on overpopulation shifts the attention away from those who are actually overconsuming and overpolluting. Here’s a much more in depth take on this:

    The ‘New’ Population Control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go
    by Betsy Hartmann

  • Dawn Haney

    Hi Murray,

    Thanks for the invitation to say a bit more about external mindfulness. It’s a concept I’m still thinking into, and one we don’t talk about too much in my Theravada tradition that mostly focuses on what’s going on internally with the four foundations: body, feeling tone, mind states, and mental objects.

    I did a little Google searching, and found an interesting set of articles by Clark Freshman on the use of external mindfulness in negotiation, where he says: “Through external mindfulness, parties learn to recognize the predictable physical signs of particular emotions, both in other peoples’ faces and in their own physiological responses. These physical and physiological signals can then help parties determine whether their appeals to the core concerns make emotions better, make no difference, or even make them worse. In this way, external mindfulness complements the core concerns approach while safeguarding parties from the approach’s limitations.” (From “Yes, And: Core Concerns, Internal Mindfulness, and External Mindfulness for Emotional Balance, Lie Detection, and Successful Negotiation” See also “After Basic Mindfulness Mediation: External Mindfulness, Emotional Truthfulness, and Lie Detection in Dispute Resolution”

    To me, this is an attempt to be mindful of another’s body to intuit their mind states or a change in feeling tone. I’m stretching the concept even farther – is it possible to by mindful of the body, feeling tone, mind states, and/or mental objects of a collective of beings like the Vatican?

    You might ask “Do organizations have feelings?” (which makes me want to read this book of the same name by Martin Albrow: I think they do, and those feelings, mind states, and mental objects are held in the organization’s culture. It’s a little more difficult to observe, because there is no one body that can hold all of an organization’s culture. That’s also what makes it difficult to change organizational beliefs. This is an interesting primer on organizational culture, and how it is held in norms that people use to police each other:

    I don’t know that this answers all the questions you might have about my sense of how this is an external mindfulness practice, with this big multi-celled organism we call The Vatican. I’m curious if you have more specific follow-up questions? I’m curious to think about this more.


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