Tuesday, November 3, 2015


William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

Some Catholic economists, perhaps under the sway of recent Popes, embrace a neoliberal image of the economy, supporting extensive inequality, treating job training of the poor for the market as the way to reduce poverty, and emphasizing carbon trading as the legitimate way to respond to climate change. Pope Francis disrupts such a combination, at least for those who wish to maintain congruence between their economic pronouncements and his presentation of Catholic faith. He says unregulated markets foster greed among the super rich and harsh suffering of the poor inside and outside the centers of capitalism. 

Here are a few welcome things he says, in Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home:
“There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means an increase of progress itself.., as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.”
“We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions..,leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.”
“Finance overwhelms the real economy…Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems and argue...that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle...can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world."

With these statements—and more besides—Francis throws the weight of the Catholic Church--with its impressive presence in Europe, North America and Latin America among other places--behind rapid action to respond to the numerous entanglements between poverty and the Anthropocene. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are important points of faith, economic creed, and political priority at which I diverge radically from Pope Francis. I do not confess his omnipotent, personal God. I am not a devotee of the Trinity, though I have come to see how it can provide one way to embrace the complexity of culture. I embrace a woman’s choice with respect to abortion. His commitment to heterosexual hegemony, while softened a bit from that of his predecessors, remains way too strong. I find appalling the patriarchy of the Church and the doctrine that rules women out of candidacy for priesthood. He has begun to relax the creed of papal infallibility, though it would be salutary if he took it on more radically. Maybe he will. He embraces faith in an organic world presided over by God, a world disrupted mostly by ruthless market processes and inordinate consumption demands; I contend that nonhuman processes possess considerable vitality and volatility on their own, so that organic alternative does not provide the strongest reply to the pursuit of mastery. He talks mostly about markets, technology, and wasteful consumption, while I say, with others, that those forces must be understood within the institutions of neoliberal capitalism. He looks to the strengthening of international institutions to cope with climate change; I think it is even more important to ignite cross-regional citizen movements to press dominant states, corporations, banks, universities, consumers, international organizations, and churches into action at the same time.

Quite a list. And yet I do admire this pope on the critical issues of poverty, imprisonment, immigration and climate change, across these differences. While Pope John Paul II labelled people who do not confess a personal God, “nihilists”, Francis resists such formulations. He wishes us well and asks us to wish him well. He acknowledges that several strains of Christianity have treated scriptural discussions of human “dominion” as if they meant human domination and mastery over the earth rather than a deep respect for the diversity of living beings. Most significantly, he addresses his text to “all people of good will”, whether they embrace a Catholic creed, or, it seems, any confession of a personal God. It is up to reformers within and outside the church to show him how this new capaciousness, compared to previous popes, must really encompass women, gays and others.

Francis understands the dangers of regimes eager to go to war to protect historic entitlements: they kill millions of innocent people, wreak devastation on world ecologies, create huge numbers of suffering refugees with no place to go, and delay urgently needed efforts to respond to the Anthropocene. Living in the United States we can supplement the pope’s point by showing how the oil, coal, evangelical, Republican machine here deploys war talk—and often enough wars--to protect their historic entitlements and to set back a host of progressive political movements. We can also encourage recent moves within evangelism to break this ugly historical alliance. 

With respect to the climate Pope Francis speaks to Catholics as he also addresses Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Indigenous peoples, and nontheists about the Anthropocene. He invites what I call relations of agonistic respect across creeds, one in which you articulate publicly the contestable creed that in-forms you as you pursue modes of communication and selective coordination with others with respect to some urgent issues of the day. Of course, you know that some will refuse the invitation. But you make the invitational move, as you keep the critiques alive. Pope Francis both acknowledges the reasonable contestability of his faith in the eyes of others and pursues spiritual relations of agonistic respect with constituencies who join him in concern about world poverty, prisons overflowing with racialized minorities, and the acceleration of climate change. 

Hunger Strike at the Don Hutto Immigration Detention Center in Texas
One way to underline the point is to say that Francis confesses devoutly the creed of his church, that he understands public life to be regularly embroiled in creedal issues that transcend the quaint secular division between public and private life, that he may become open to future shifts in the priorities of his own creed in the light of debate and new situations, and that he pursues lines of spiritual affinity with others who care about the world and confess other creeds. He himself believes “that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more.” But he pursues connections to others with respect to climate, poverty and immigration whose positive spiritualities--in ways that may sometimes surprise him--are anchored in creeds he contests. 
Climate March in Instanbul
Francis is calling for a cross-regional assemblage of constituencies of many sorts to respond to the Anthropocene. He might encourage some of the actions taken, tolerate others, and find yet others to be too dangerous or destructive. That is what participation in a critical pluralist assemblage in the making means. You seek to energize it and you promote proposals for action within it, rather than demanding to preside over it as a Pope, authoritarian Party, Ruler, or unquestionable Prophet.
The power of such a critical assemblage is, first, that it is less likely to replicate the dogmatism and authoritarianism of some of the movements it opposes, second, that disparate constituencies in it may inspire each other to action, and, third, that creative action by one constituency in a fraught situation may also incite creativity by others as they riff off that innovation. 

Idle No More Protest in London
To me, a creed refers to the fundamental beliefs you confess about the most profound conditions and terms of human existence; a spirituality expresses the existential investments you pour into it. Thus we may share a formal creed while some of us secretly resent the world for being that way and others are grateful for that condition. The differences can be manifest in a desire to identify heretics vs. a desire to extend internal diversity, or in punitive desires against those outside the faith vs. propensities to presumptive generosity. Creed and spirituality are inter-involved and yet neither identical nor equivalent.
Suppose cross-regional general strikes erupt in a couple of years to press states, corporations, churches, universities, consumers and so on to make radical changes in the priorities of production and consumption as they reconstitute the energy grid. It seems unlikely to me that Francis will participate directly. But as arrests, fines, jail time, and vigilante beatings are taken against strikers, we can anticipate that he will used his standing to publicize what is happening, demand state and vigilante restraint, and apply moral pressure upon these institutions to initiate radical change. I would count on him in these respects far more than on many neoliberal university presidents I have encountered. In a critical pluralist assemblage not all constituencies take the same action; nonetheless, acting from different subject positions, they can support and sustain one another. 

Copenhagen Climate Protest
I do expect to argue against Francis about key ethical and political questions in the future, including the place and diversity of sexuality, abortion, equality of women, the sources of human creativity, the nature of capitalism, the role of militancy in politics, and the nature of nature. But rather than press such creedal differences now, let me close with a few additional quotes that suggest how Francis both works upon devotees of his faith and inspires others to respond to climate change:
"This rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of freedom and responsibility of human beings, who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect and develop its potential.
If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.
In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation.” 

*Quotes from the Pope are from Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015)


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