Good fiction can make history come alive; conceivably, sometimes, it may cause history to happen. If the latter is indeed conceivable, then Pope Francis I may have been invented by the Australian novelist Morris West in The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963). The novel was made into an American movie in 1968. (Francis was then thirty-two years old. Did young Jesuit seminarians in Argentina ever go to the movies in those days?) The protagonist of West’s book and its film version was Archbishop Kiril Lakota of Lvov in the Soviet Union (now Lviv, in Ukraine). He is released after twenty years in a prison (at “the ends of the world”), arrives in Rome and asks the then pope to give him “a simple mission to simple people”. Instead the pope makes him a cardinal, then suddenly drops dead. The conclave that is to elect the new pope is deadlocked for a long time, but Lakota impresses everyone by his intelligence and his humility. Unexpectedly he breaks the deadlock and is elected to the papacy. At his coronation, in a gesture of humility, he takes off his tiara and announces that he will sell all the property of the Church and give the proceeds to the poor. At this time Russia and China are on the brink of a nuclear war, ultimately caused by the United States (ever the global villain), which has impoverished China by way of sanctions and motivated that country to seek relief by attacking Russia. Lakota gives all his new riches to the Chinese, and thereby averts war and saves the world.
Put the two narratives side by side: Clearly Francis still has some way to go if he is to catch up to his predecessor. In the movie Lakota is played by Anthony Quinn (who reached his Hollywood apotheosis in 1964 as Zorba the Greek). Laurence Olivier played the head of the USSR, John Gielgud the suddenly moribund earlier pope, and Vittorio de Sica the cardinal who nominated Lakota. An impressive cast! (If a movie is to be made today about Francis, who should play him?)
I really don’t want to write about Pope Francis in post after post. I have nothing against him—in fact I rather like him. But he is after all the head of the largest Christian community in the world, he keeps generating news, and I feel obligated to report on it in my blog. As I have reported before, he keeps on saying and doing things that make me worry about what increasingly looks like a (regrettable) leftward lurch at the center of the Catholic Church. In 1870, after the newly united Italian state took over the papal states and left a sovereign papal territory about the size of Central Park, Pius IX declared himself a “prisoner in the Vatican” and only wore slippers (rather nice ones, I should say) to symbolize this status. All his successors in the Fisherman’s see followed the practice—until Francis, this time to symbolize his closeness to the laity, who wears ordinary leather shoes. I imagine him tapping one of these shoes every time he makes a leftist gesture: Rehabilitation of Gustavo Gutierrez and Liberation Theology—tap. Beatification of Oscar Romero—tap. And so on: Pejorative comments on “unfettered capitalism”. Calling for “a poor church”. Using as advisors in preparing his new encyclical on the environment the aforementioned Gustavo Gutierrez as well as Cardinal Peter Turkson, from Ghana, the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which over the years has been a Liberation Theology cell within the Curia. Tap, tap, tap. But now the encyclical is out—not just a tap, but a resounding bang. The other shoe of the Fisherman, a really big one, has dropped!
There is a sense of déjà vu about this: I can recall several other episodes in my own lifetime when revolutionary policy changes were proposed as the only alternative to an imminent huge catastrophe. In each case there was the assumption that “the science is in”—all that remains to be done is to implement the necessary policies. In 1964 the first report on smoking was issued by the U.S. Surgeon General; it showed impressive correlations between smoking and, among other diseases, lung cancer, but it did not go much beyond warning smokers to quit. The international “war against tobacco” did not begin in earnest until the 1980s, when “innocent victims”, namely non-smokers, were proposed to justify an ever-increasing array of prohibitions, regulations and educational programs. These are supposedly based on scientific evidence that, not only is smoking bad for smokers (pretty strong evidence—though, as the tobacco industry kept saying, correlation is not the same as causation), but that smoking is bad for anyone in the vicinity of smokers (much shakier evidence). In 1970 the modern environmentalist movement was launched by the first Earth Day with a proclamation by U Thant, then secretary-general of the United Nations. But the legitimating science was provided in an enormously influential book by Donella Meadows et al, The Limits of Growth (1972), prepared as a Report to the Club of Rome (a prestigious international think-tank). Although the authors said that they could not make firm predictions (things can always change—who knows, though hard to believe, even the Pope may come around to their view!), they did say that, if present trends are not reversed (continued economic growth, population growth, and diminishing resources) various predictable developments would occur: for example, oil resources would run out in 1992.
So now there is what may well be called “the global warming” movement. It grew naturally out of the earlier environmentalism, but the start of its “war” can be dated as beginning in 2006, with the release of Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” at the Sundance Film Festival. Here too the assumption is that “the science is in”—supposedly proving that the planet is warming, that the major cause of this is human activity, and that the consequences are imminent and catastrophic. These three propositions have now become a sort of orthodoxy in progressive circles everywhere, leading to draconic measures of government interventions in the economy and social life.
The encyclical on the environment by Pope Francis I was issued on June 18, 2015: Laudato Si – Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home”. By all means read it (it was promptly posted on the Internet by the Vatican’s savvy media service). It is an ingenious (if slightly tedious) embedding of the aforementioned orthodoxy in previous Catholic social teaching (especially about concern for the poor) and in the nature mysticism of St. Francis of Assisi (whose hymn “our Sister, Mother Earth” opens the encyclical). It strongly affirms a “scientific consensus” (represented here by another advisor, Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which is generously funded by the German government and the European Union). Anyone who is skeptical about the alleged scientific consensus is discredited as a “denier” (think “Holocaust denial”), wanting to maintain a “wasteful lifestyle”, or serving special interests (such as the oil or coal industries).
Pope Francis tries to make clear that he does not speak here ex cathedra: “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics”. Rather: “To encourage an honest and open dialogue”. Fine, I’ll take his word for it. (Unlike most politicians, Francis seems to mean it when he kisses babies.) But his claims to scientific and political abstemiousness is a bit disingenuous: You can’t give a detailed diagnosis of a malady, including a list of villains who supposedly cause the latter, and then say that all you want is open dialogue. The malady is a “structurally perverse system” (read capitalism), which favors the rich and oppresses the poor. The main villains are wealthy nations and corporations, who perpetuate inequality, and who support a “culture of waste” and “consumerism”. This is not an original diagnosis (I hear Gustavo happily applauding in the background). Even if the encyclical does not spell out the policy details of the “revolutionary change” it claims to be necessary to avoid catastrophe, the general political direction is clear enough: Slow down economic growth, especially as pushed by the capitalist system, stop the “disproportionate use of natural resources”, and use political power to achieve these goals—which implies a massive increase in the power of individual nation-states and perhaps of international organizations.
Alas, the diagnosis (essentially that of unreconstructed Liberation Theology) is false: The poor have benefited enormously where the “perverse system” of capitalism has been allowed to release its dynamism (as in China since the economic reforms that began in 1979). As to the implied therapy of “sustainable growth” and redistribution of wealth, it is precisely the poor nations and poor people within nations that would pay the heaviest costs. What energy policy is to support such a slowed but more equitable growth? Minimally, it must rely precisely on the “blind confidence in technical solutions” deplored in the encyclical. More fuel-efficient machinery?—best developed by private industry. Sun and wind energy?—very expensive. Nuclear energy?—a great taboo in the Green world. Coercive projects will look more promising: for example, forcing most private automobiles off the road (only the rich could afford them), pushing most people (the poor) to use bicycles or mass transit. As to the poorer nations, every slowing of economic growth will increase the number of the poor within them, as it will increase the inequality between them and the world of the rich.
I can claim no competence in climatology or related scientific fields. I do have a good understanding of social movements and the ideological orthodoxies they engender. Science or what passes for it is no exception. Genuine science is hardly ever “all in”; it always provides probabilities, not absolute certainties. The global warming movement exaggerates the degree of scientific consensus; there is a good deal regarding some global warming, less so about its extent, its consequences, and the contribution of human activity. Once a theory has been widely disseminated, those who assented to it are reluctant to give it up, even in the face of empirical counter-evidence.
Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1982) has provided a vivid picture of how adherents of a falsified paradigm cling to it, with modifications, as long as possible,before they give it up in favor of a new paradigm. What Kuhn did not emphasize is that there often are powerful vested interests supporting both the old and the new paradigm—those whose livelihood depends on the coal industry have an interest in “denying” the role of fossil fuels in global warming, just as those who develop solar panels have an interest in affirming that their products can reduce warming. Those who approach public policy without personal interests and with the common good in mind (there are some of those!), will try to balance insurance against major catastrophic but unlikely developments in the future, and remedies against very likely bad developments quite soon. Analogy: It is possible that a planetary catastrophe could be caused by a large comet hitting the earth sometime in the future. It might be prudent to explore the possibility of using rockets to divert such a comet from its earth-bound course. It would not be plausible to stop all other space planning in order to focus on this (possibly looming) comet. (A few months ago I read a curious German-language novel by Hannes Stein, an Austrian writer, Der Planet (2013). The time of the novel is the 1980s. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy still exists. Its aged Emperor Franz-Joseph II (the former Archduke Franz-Ferdinand whose 1914 assassination in Sarajevo had been averted) tries to prepare his loyal subjects for the inevitable destruction of the world a few months hence. The terrible comet is heading directly toward Vienna.)
The Vatican has been a source of conspiracy theories for centuries. This may be infectious. Perhaps I have been infected, while fixated on the See of the Fisherman in my effort to understand how Pope Francis I sees the world. Could I have overlooked an obvious Argentinian clue? Recently, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, had an unusually long audience with Francis. She is the widow of Nestor Kirchner, who had been president of the country before her and was succeeded by her in 2007. Both Kirchners belong to the Justicialist party, which seeks to follow (with some modifications) the populist policies of Juan Peron (1895-2006), who was president three times and was succeeded by two of his wives (the famous Evita and the much less glamorous Maria Isabel). Peronismo was the somewhat loose ideology based on the core idea of promoting equality by taking from the rich and giving to the poor—the latter being Peron’s political base, the so-called descamisados (“shirtless ones”), an amalgam of working class and sub-proletariat. Cristina is no Evita, but she tries. The years of Peron succeeded in effectively destroying the Argentinian economy. He had a truly remarkable achievement: In the few years of Peronist rule the country morphed from one of the richest countries in the world to an appropriately poor member of the under-developed “Third World”.