Later this week, on Thursday, June 18, Pope Francis will publish what has become perhaps the most anticipated papal encyclical to date. The document will be titled 'Laudato si,' or 'Praised be,' borrowing a phrase from Saint Francis of Assisi's 'Canticle of the Sun.' It is widely anticipated that its focus will be on problems of environmental degradation of the vulnerability of the world's poorest to climate change.
A great deluge of commentary in the days prior to and immediately following the encyclicals release can be expected. Most of what appears in the mainstream media will amount to little more than misappropriated misinformation. Parties will seek to use the publication of the encyclical to advance their own agendas. This is only par for the course in the unruly public square. To weather the storms of punditry, here are a few important things to bear in mind.
The meaning of the encyclical will be especially contested in the United States, where Catholics are very prominently represented in high political office (e.g. the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner) and/or are standing for the Republican nomination in the 2016 election (e.g. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum). The pope is scheduled to address Congress, during a week-long trip to Washington, D.C. in the fall. A member of the pope's advisory council listed among the issues that he is likely to raise in that venue are the need to welcome immigrants, the need to support families, the need to protect the environment, the need to fight political partisanship, and the role of capitalism is fostering economic inequality.
So the meaning of the encyclical will naturally be caught up in American political debates. A couple of different narratives are currently being offered by the mainstream media. The first, from left-leaning interest groups. is that the pope is bringing the Catholic Church in line with the latest and best environmental science. The second, from the other side of the political spectrum, is that the pope is in danger off overstepping the bounds of his magisterial authority to pronounce on matters of religion and morality. Both encourage the idea that the pope is making a radical break with the past. They, in fact, claim essentially the same thing: the pope is breaking with religious orthodoxy in order to accommodate the latest science. The only point that they differ is whether this is a good thing or not.
But nothing Pope Francis has to say will be new. Nothing; not a single thing. It will have already been anticipated in his own public statements and formal writings, or in the writings of his predecessors. His first encyclical, 'Lumen Fidei,' or 'The light of faith,' argued that faith undergirds the common good by pointing people beyond merely relating to one's fellow human beings 'on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear.' The other major publication of his papacy, 'Evangelii Gaudium,' the 'Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today's World,' embraced the language of 'the social implications of the Gospel,' highlighting the special concern in the Gospels for the poor. Throughout these documents, fairly explicit criticisms of the inequities of capitalism may also be found.
So why the disconnect? Why will pundits inevitably talk about the encyclical as if it were a radical innovation? In large part, the problem has to do with the peculiar authority accorded to the language and methods of empirical science in the United States. On the political left, it is almost a foregone conclusion that 'science' is liberal and progressive. The political right seems to recognize the inherent bias, but it objects to any conflation of 'science' with 'religion' and 'morality.'
The limited empirical question about whether climate change is actually occurring will not detain the pope for very long. Much like John Paul II's simple affirmation that human beings have evolved in 1996, Francis is not likely to engage with the particulars of the scientific debate. Sources close to the Vatican do say that he will affirm the 'contentious' claim that present climate change is mainly caused by human action, and is not the result of naturally, long-term trends. An Italian 'draft' of the encyclical, which was leaked yesterday, appears to confirm this.
The final point is key to understanding the nature of the argument that Francis is likely to make. His more conservative objectors--including, it is worth noting, bloggers over at the American Catholic website First Things--neatly divide the human world into two 'spheres': a limited sphere in which empirical science holds sway and a comprehending sphere in which religion and morality stand preeminent. Natural scientists belong on one side; Francis and the church belong on the other. Or so the story goes.
Extrapolating from what the pope has hitherto written, his argument is likely to be framed in terms which undercut the strict distinction between secular and sacred 'spheres.' The language of distinct spheres seems to suggest to disconnected halves of human life. Religion and morality, in this telling, belong to the side of the soul: private, subjective, internal. Natural science belongs to the side of the body: public, objective, external.
The difficulty that this poses for a man who is acclaimed the Vicar of Christ is that he represents the incarnation--the embodiment of God--in human form and the extension of the God-man's body into human history in the form of the church community. The basic tenet of the Catholic faith cuts right through the abstract language of 'spheres,' pointing to the fact that religion and morality has always concerned, and will continue to concern, human bodies. Not without consequence, after all, does the Catholic mass elevates the sacrifice of the God-man's dying body to an object of worship.
This focus on the human beings/bodies naturally lends itself to apocalyptic pronouncements. Indeed, the leaked Italian draft of the encyclical leaves ample reason to think that the pope will make more than a few dire warnings about prospects for the future. The language of 'spheres' displaces human bodies from the center of any discussion about how we ought to live--both in the world and with each other. And if the current language of government, academia, and public discussion is cast in an explicitly empirical mode, it is not hard to conclude that our collective future looks quite grim.