It must be a little disorienting, as a Democrat heading into primary season, to wake up one morning and find yourself to the right of the pope. And not just any pope, but a wildly popular rock-star pope, whose favorables even among non-Catholics are sky-high. Yet that is the situation in which most Democrats, and certainly presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, find themselves on the question of climate change as Francis comes to the United States in September to address Congress and the United Nations.
Since June, when the pope released Laudato si’ (Praise Be to You), his epic encyclical on ecology, climate, and economic justice (its title taken from a canticle of St. Francis of Assisi), media coverage has focused obsessively on what it all means for climate-science-denying Republicans. Alas, this sets the bar a bit low—and lets liberals and lefties off the hook. Because equally important is the challenge that the pope’s message presents to those who purport to take climate change and its threat to humanity, especially the poor and the young, at all seriously. It’s fair to say that Democrats at the national level, and many others up and down the left side of the spectrum, have yet to fully embrace the urgency of climate justice as an organizing principle—perhaps the organizing principle—of our politics and, indeed, our society. And make no mistake: Francis, as he brings a message merging ecology and liberation theology, is the climate-justice pope.
It’s important, of course, for those who care about the climate not to romanticize this moment, or this pope. Francis is not our climate savior. (Nobody is.) He does not walk on water. However sincere and compassionate he may be (and he appears to be both), in his role as the pope he’s a politician, a world leader at the head of a rich, powerfully influential, and entirely human—that is, deeply fallible—global institution. And he presides over a conservative theological tradition whose teachings on gender, sexuality, marriage, contraception, and abortion are, to many of us, and women in particular, not only wrong but oppressive. For these and other reasons, his ability to single-handedly reshape climate politics, especially in this country, is limited, to say the least.
What’s more, the substance of his encyclical offers nothing particularly new. Francis is hardly the first religious leader, or even the first pope, to frame ecology and climate in moral and theological terms—a view widely accepted among the world’s religions—or to make the case for climate justice. To be honest, when I learned that Francis would issue an “unprecedented” papal encyclical linking climate and poverty, my first reaction was something like “Wonderful! It’s about time.” Yes, his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI (called by some the “green pope”) said some good things about protecting creation and the poor, and the inseparability of the two, and the Vatican has long been on the side of climate science. But it seems fair to ask why it’s taken so long for the Roman Catholic Church to step up in such a strong way. It’s 2015, not 1995 or 2005. The pope’s engagement is certainly a welcome boost in advance of the crucial UN conference in Paris this December—and, who knows, may yet help to change the game in Paris and beyond. But in truth, this is long overdue. Late in the fourth quarter, the clock running down, it looks a lot like a Hail Mary.