COP26 Pope Francis to the ‘Conference of Parties’ and the World: Analysis

Here is the text from the Vatican released by the BBC on 29 10 21:

Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed our deep vulnerability and raised numerous doubts and concerns about our economic systems and the way we organize our societies. We have lost our sense of security, and are experiencing a sense of powerlessness and loss of control over our lives. We find ourselves increasingly frail and even fearful, caught up in a succession of “crises” in the areas of health care, the environment, food supplies and the economy, to say nothing of social, humanitarian and ethical crises. All these crises are profoundly interconnected. They also forecast a “perfect storm” that could rupture the bonds holding our society together within the greater gift of God’s creation. Every crisis calls for vision, the ability to formulate plans and put them rapidly into action, to rethink the future of the world, our common home, and to reassess our common purpose. These crises present us with the need to take decisions, radical decisions that are not always easy. At the same time, moments of difficulty like these also present opportunities, opportunities that we must not waste. We can confront these crises by retreating into isolationism, protectionism and exploitation. Or we can see in them a real chance for change, a genuine moment of conversion, and not simply in a spiritual sense. This last approach alone can guide us towards a brighter horizon. Yet it can only be pursued through a renewed sense of shared responsibility for our world, and an effective solidarity based on justice, a sense of our common destiny and a recognition of the unity of our human family in God’s plan for the world. All this represents an immense cultural challenge. It means giving priority to the common good, and it calls for a change in perspective, a new outlook, in which the dignity of every human being, now and in the future, will guide our ways of thinking and acting. The most important lesson we can take from these crises is our need to build together, so that there will no longer be any borders, barriers or political walls for us to hide behind. Some days ago, on 4 October, I met with religious leaders and scientists to sign a Joint Appeal in which we called upon ourselves and our political leaders to act in a more responsible and consistent manner. I was impressed by something said by one of the scientists present at that meeting. He told us: “If things continue as they are, in fifty years’ time my baby granddaughter will have to live in an unliveable world”. We cannot allow this to happen! It is essential that each of us be committed to this urgent change of direction, sustained by our own faith and spirituality. In the Joint Appeal, we spoke of the need to work responsibly towards a “culture of care” for our common home, but also for ourselves, and the need to work tirelessly to eliminate “the seeds of conflicts: greed, indifference, ignorance, fear, injustice, insecurity and violence”. Humanity has never before had at its disposal so many means for achieving this goal. The political decision makers who will meet at COP26 in Glasgow are urgently summoned to provide effective responses to the present ecological crisis and in this way to offer concrete hope to future generations. And it is worth repeating that each of us – whoever and wherever we may be – can play our own part in changing our collective response to the unprecedented threat of climate change and the degradation of our common home.

What is the message that Pope Francis is trying to convey in this statement? Much could be observed, for it is a carefully crafted address, acknowledging many interlinked factors. I have added highlights above to ground my own reflections. I suggest the following analysis to draw attention to what I see as the principal points:

  1. Since the Industrial Revolution, the scaling up of sanitary living conditions and especially since the widespread manufacture and distribution of vaccines, humanity has cultured a mindset of security in life, ever-increasing power over natural resources and thus a sense of being in control of our corporate and collective existence. The only enemy we would admit to would be the ‘other’ we have gone to war against, a point now generally ignored as WW1, WW2 and the Cold War have been consigned to history.
  2. The caveat to the above is that what quickly became true for the well-off elites, especially in the ‘developed’ West was never true for many others, in so-called developed countries, and much more so elsewhere. Most of the world has been poor, and this is very much the case for many billions alive today. The hope extended in the narrative of human progress was that the services and prosperity gained from technological and medical advances would trickle down to the masses. But in much of the world, while the benefits have not reached the least well off, many of the costs of our riches have been and growingly are being inflicted on those who have never been anything other than ‘poor’.
  3. The many aspects of climate change, the accumulating effects of which are increasing in severity, and the relatively sudden COVID19 pandemic that brought economic havoc, even if it did not directly imperil life, both give the lie to the suggestion- even the firm belief- that all that is needed for the success of the human project is more time, after which the many very regrettable and, it is claimed, temporary injustices will be rectified.
  4. Increasing technological prowess built on the exploitation and spoilage of nature and all its resources is itself the problem. To be clear, the powers that scientific understanding and insight give us are in no way evils- they are an amoral product of human culture- but the way in which the human imagination has been allowed to apply those insights into particular technologies, within a worldview framework ruled by a certain mode of capitalist economics is now exposed to have underpinned the development of many evils. [I add, for the benefit for a more critical audience, that the Vatican has resolved the historical misunderstand about the relations between the objective science which showed that the Earth is a satellite of our nearest star, with the profound theological view that puts the claim that we on this singular Earth have great significance in the sight of God. There must be a constructive dialogue between ‘science and religion’ in order to establish what ‘the facts’ do and do not suggest in terms of meaning and value. The postmodern view, if it is at all possible to generalise, has compromised such dialogue and allowed a reduced economic model to thrive in which the integrity of our unique and singular home is in great peril.]
  5. We need to reach for a paradigm shift in our understanding of our relationships with one another as human beings: ‘society’, and also between humans and the world which is in fact God’s world. Pope Francis does not here spell out all the details of what a higher quality of relationships between humans and with the world we find ourselves in might be, but does succinctly indicate some significant landmarks in this worldview. He says that we should accord a quality of dignity to one another, thus as human persons. Each ‘other’ person is absolutely not merely an economic unit of production or consumption, an agent in the commercial market, a placeholder in a habitat, a point of ecological flux, though there may be efficiency in certain aspects of human government in temporarily adopting such perspectives. Rather, we have a transcendent quality of dignity as human beings that stems from our common origin of creation in the image of God, imago Dei. Thus it is asserted that the ‘religious’ perspective is not an epiphenomenon of our biological existence on the conveniently equipped third rock from our Sun, but rather a fixed point in the value system which we ought not have strayed from and to which we must return to empower the recovery of both peoples and planet. We find we are made as individuals with integrity of identity in the image of the Divine, and collectively are one family as we answer to the same Father. Such is our ‘common destiny’- not merely that we exist as one variety of primates in this period of earth’s long geological history, in a brief and futile interlude preceding the ultimate heat death of the universe which we can anticipate in the same instant as we came to consciousness of our miniscule place among many billions of far-flung galaxies. We need not fret to grapple with such a distant future crisis when our immediate circumstances are so much more pressing, and should take sober comfort from the theological understanding that this physical creation is a continuing gift from Godself to us all. We are not to treat this unique biosphere with its diversity of ecosystems merely as a commodity, as a thing for crude use, then to be discarded, reduced to mere materials at our disposal, but rather to be respected as a gift: a sign of God’s disposition of love towards us all in all times and places. Since it is a continuing gift of God to those who should come tomorrow, we are necessarily expected to encompass all our notions of use within the bounds of responsible and humble stewardship*.
  6. Such, following Pope Francis, is the basis for the worldview in which faith and spirituality are fundamental to the solution of this unprecedented predicament. For the Christian Pope Francis, the commitment to the God of Creation covenant is strong enough to enable interreligious dialogue and partnership, which he has put into practice, and also to appeal to the world’s politicians to work together as never before in hope, which surely cannot be based solely in our human capacities, though these are not inconsiderable. In claiming that facing the ecological crisis is a valid part of the Christian gospel message, Pope Francis is implying that while it proved a simple matter for human ego and excess to misuse recent science and technology to bring about our current crises, it will be the transformations of our cultural systems of economics and commerce by justice, forgiveness and restitution that no animal community could conceive of- this is the spiritual conversion of which he speaks- spiritual certainly in the sense of coming to a repaired relationship with God, but at one and the same time recognising that a transformed relationship with God ought necessarily and automatically spill over into a transformed relationship with our neighbours, and to further flood into our relationship with our common environment. Our mistake has been to bracket off the first kind of spirituality and pretend that the other two are not all part and parcel of the same thing. Surely God does care for the animals and plants- the oceans and forests and mountains- which is why we are here on God’s behalf. We broke the bonds of this covenant in our minds and hearts, and there they must be repaired. Pope Francis lists some of the seeds of conflict that we must attend to, ever germinating in the gardens of our hearts, quickly pulling them out by the roots to consign them to oblivion, and Christian people aspire to be examples of such redemptive co-working with the Spirit of God.
  7. Such spiritual work cannot be an optional extra to the work of recovery we must commence and perhaps even complete in the next decade. With beautiful irony Pope Francis describes the hope that must be conceived and brought to birth in our global politics being as substantial as concrete; one of the technological marvels of our age that has also been responsible for the ravages of a million quarries and emission of vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Hope can be a human product, but heaven’s resources are indeed available to us individually and corporately to co-create such a hope on such as scale that we may come to partnership in common cause and mutual trust to repent– to turn around and live differently. Perhaps such hope in a few will sustain the many- though Pope Francis invites us to imagine what synergy could result from a more general embrace of such a godly hope. St Paul said that the greatest things of all are love and faith, and hope- perhaps this is a time in which we realise why this is so.
  8. With such a transformation from our collective old ways, from a broken economy, a chaotic planet and ecological disaster, to a new culture of care… Yes! The change that is needed is first and foremost inside us- that is where the solution must begin. Pope Francis is right to affirm that our technological capacity- the likely fruitfulness of our intellect, imagination and creativity to address the ills of atmosphere and ecology need not be in question. As much as to say, “Can we fix this? Of course we can.” But the real challenge is in the realm of human heart, and it is in the collective heart that we can reform human society- to make it to be such a thing that is recognised as the seedbed of a culture of care for the whole globe- its 7 906 882 490 persons (as I write- and rising) and each of the organisms which we are presently squeezing off the face of the earth with such unwarranted aggression. Biologists struggle to estimate species diversity on our planet, guessing that there are at least another million species to add to the 2.1 million we have catalogued so far. All the while we are driving some 150 species to extinction each day. We certainly can change our behaviour to stop our collective wanton destruction, and live differently in order to ensure that even a growing human population can live a new kind of prosperous life without continuing to have a net impact on the health and integrity of our planet- especially its climate. What is crucial is that we discover and create something completely new- a solidarity and collective will to join hands (as our African friends say) to act differently and to act together. Bluntly: to share.
Gus Speth, American environmental lawyer and advocate. Shared Planet: Religion and Nature, BBC Radio 4 (1 October 2013) Speth’s reflection invites the headline involvement of religious leaders, showing why the Pope’s statement and wider activism should be warmly received in civil society.

9. In his concluding sentence, Pope Francis affirms what we already know- a journey of many miles does indeed start with a single step, and that step can, and must, be taken by me, and each of us. Quite so, and this is not at all trivial. But we will have no truck with multinational corporations9 who try to deflect attention from their corporate responsibilities in suggesting that transformative solutions really lie at the doors of the consumers of products and services- only in the local action of all of us as individuals. The Pope’s statement exquisitely avoids such sophistry. First of all is the place of the political decision makers who have it in their reach to set the governmental and legal frameworks in which all businesses and corporations of all sizes can operate. Our role as citizens, individually and collectively, must follow that, and can do so, when the governmental environment has been restructured so that the small choices of each individual can indeed add up to the collective impact that is needed.

10. Only once does Pope Francis use the word ‘urgently.’ This diplomatic nicety is not to be underestimated. As he does say more than once, we face multiple crises which are inextricably interlinked, and they may yet coincide to create a ‘perfect storm’ not only in the climate and its multiple physical effects but also in their ramifications in our globalised societies. But if we act NOW the worst may be averted. The Pope comes to this political call with considerable integrity, having made this matter a priority from the outset of his religious ministry- hence taking the name ‘Francis’, for Francis of Assisi. He has tackled the matter with respect to the voices of reason, by engaging with scientific experts, and yet showing that the voice of faith is contiguous with all other human concerns under God. Thus he draws together this collective plea for timely action and submits it to the world’s politicians meeting now and following COP26. He emphasises that the organisation he represents as Pope- the Catholic church- is as much responsible to act as any business or government, as well as the community of academics and scientists. In all these things we can see a significant example of leadership at this vital moment.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

  • BBC Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’ at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0b10zxw, where a translator reads the speech in English, with the audio of the Pope speaking in Italian in the background. This is given prominence when he gets to the fifth sentence, which ends with the words tempesta perfetta.
  • * See https://www.professorbuzzkill.com/qnq-32/ “But, like spiritual quotes that get attached to Gandhi, political quips and gibes that get attributed to Churchill, and thoughtful sentiments that drift toward Martin Luther King, “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” got affixed to Chief Seattle, despite the fact that there’s no evidence he ever said it. The attribution happened during the environmental movement that started in the 1970s, but who first said it is unknown. The phrase is undoubtedly wise, and it seems to be common wisdom, a distillation of more extensive, paragraph-length ideas, or both. In fact, the nearest that Buzzkill Institute researchers have been able to come to a originator of the quote is the noted American writer, poet, and cultural critic, Wendell Berry. In his 1971 book, Unforeseen Wilderness, Berry wrote that environmental stewardship has been lost by most modern people. It can, however, be recovered. He said, “We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…” Berry is well-known in literary circles, and should probably be much better known in our wider culture…
  • 9 “The oil and gas industry has spent years deflecting from its central part in global heating, pushing the claim that it is doing no more than selling a legal product and that it is the individual user who bears responsibility for putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/20/american-fishers-west-coast-sue-big-oil AND The truth behind the ads: Big oil’s rhetoric has evolved from outright denial to more subtle forms of propaganda, including shifting responsibility away from companies and on to consumers. This mimics big tobacco’s effort to combat criticism and defend against litigation and regulation by “casting itself as a kind of neutral innocent, buffeted by the forces of consumer demand”. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/18/the-forgotten-oil-ads-that-told-us-climate-change-was-nothing

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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