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.