At its worst, Protestantism has long been deeply suspicious of all holy things, of the very notion that a physical object can carry anything of the sacred. At its best, such a suspicion is aimed instead at the notion of holier things—of an elite, rarefied sacrality that sets a few things utterly apart.
A new pope arrives in the United States. Expectations are high for this different type of papacy that brings fresh air from a land that has never given Catholicism a pope before. He comes to America as a media star, having energized not only Catholics, but many of other faiths or even no faith at all. His charisma and direct contact with people in the pews contrast starkly with the remoteness and intellectualism of his predecessor as pope. Catholicism has been in the doldrums for more than a decade, but his unexpected election has sparked excitement and curiosity. He gives voice to many who haven't been heard and have been yearning for leadership.
Just before the papal encyclical on the environment was released, the hype in environmental circles matched that for Taylor Swift’s latest music video. (To be clear: “Bad Blood” deserves the hype.) Who will Laudato Si’ affect the most? What will its rationale be? What sort of reception will it get? Most importantly: will it matter?
You don’t normally see the names Pope Francis and Robin Williams in the same sentence, but here goes.
Early in his career, the brilliant comedian and actor Robin Williams scored big with a performance called Reality—What a Concept. This wonderful play on words came to mind when I heard a few lines from one of Pope Francis’ talks during his visit to the Philippines earlier this year. They gained little attention, but are critical to understanding how he wants to enliven the church and the world. “Reality,” he told a large group of young people, “is superior to ideas.”
When Pope Francis thinks of climate change, he thinks of social justice. In his 2013 inaugural homily as pope, Francis implored “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political, and social life” to “be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” Speaking at an Italian university a year later, Francis announced, “This is our sin, exploiting the Earth and not allowing her to give us what she has within her.” In 2015, Vatican-watchers expect Francis to produce an encyclical that situates climate change within the framework of Catholic social teaching.
Francis’s position on the injustices of climate change is not new to the Roman Catholic Church.
Amid weeks with more than their share of bad news, one story before the new year seemed like a glimmer of light in the darkness. The world grabbed onto it: Pope Francis comforting a boy as he grieved the death of his dog, telling the boy he’ll see his dog in heaven.
Not all of Francis's critics sound like a McCarthyite version of Foghorn Leghorn. But this refrain is common: the pope is beyond his competence in matters of science and public policy, at least where the environment is concerned.