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.
Many Catholics and others against capital punishment have often suggested life in prison without parole as an alternative for dangerous criminals such as murderers. Some, however, have noted that life without parole is problematic as well. I have had "lifers" write to me about how they are merely warehoused, without any sense of hope or meaning or purpose.
The United States and the Catholic Church share some intriguing similarities: both are global in reach, exert significant influence over hundreds of millions of people, and (perhaps most interestingly) make serious teleological claims. Such claims have not necessarily clashed, for they appeal to different social and moral aspects of humanity. At their best, they can be complementary empires of promise.