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Is Pope Francis Too Gloomy? Or Are Conservatives Just in Denial About Our Planet?

Alberto Pizzoli / Getty Images

There was no question that American conservative intellectuals were going to attack Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s new encyclical on ecology. It was only a matter of how. They could have used shrill rhetoric to undermine the Francis's authority or acumen, as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have done. But their gameplan instead is slightly more clever: to tone-police the Pope. As Nathan Schneider observed in America yesterday, the stream of Laudato criticism issuing from the right concerns the Pope’s allegedly dreary, apocalyptic, pessimistic mood.

First Things deputy editor Matthew Schmitz, writing in the Washington Post, found Laudato patently downbeat, writing that it "is the work of a profoundly pessimistic man." Ross Douthat of The New York Times considered it a catastrophist document, one that views "global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled." And his colleague David Brooks, as though reviewing a diverting picture show, called Laudato “surprisingly disappointing,” then followed up with the same critique of Francis’s supposedly relentless negativity.

If you want to write apocalyptic screeds, Christianity is the right religion for you. Nobody is less impressed with this world and more insistent on its eventual (possibly imminent) destruction than Jesus Christ: from this proceeds many strands of Christian thought and practice, including monasticism and asceticism, and a general affinity for slogans like memento mori (remember, you will die) and sic transit gloria mundi (so passes the glory of the world). Christianity views human beings as the type of folks who would, when presented with God in the flesh, murder him in cold blood. It is not, and has never been, a religion of undiluted optimism. It can only lay claim to vast reserves of hope. (“Let us sing as we go,” reads Laudato, “May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”)

Laudato Si is not the first encyclical to follow in this pattern of sharp prediction and hopeful intervention; it is only the latest to rub conservatives the wrong way. Other encyclicals with incredibly gloomy characters have rubbed liberals the wrong way. Consider Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical on marital sexuality that laid out the Church’s moral reservations about the use of artificial birth control. In Humanae, Pope Paul VI made a number of predictions about what the widespread use of artificial birth control would loose upon the earth: higher rates of infidelity and a general moral decline; men would begin to view women as soulless sex toys fit for nothing but “selfish enjoyment”; public authorities would begin to implement abusive population-reduction programs; and people would erroneously come to believe they possess limitless dominion over their bodies, without respect to the will of God. It was an incredibly dark prognosis, in other words, for a new brand of technology that many people—then and now—considered a source of optimism.

In the decades that have followed Humanae, attempts have periodically surfaced to demonstrate that its predictions were either right or wrong. One might think it would be easy to test the outcome of a prophecy, but so much of Humanae’s concern rests with the intangibles of life, matters of decreased respect, reduced prudence, and wrong-headed self-regard. Suffice to say, whether you look at the world and see everything Paul VI predicted likely has to do with whether you appreciate the substance of Humanae; and, if you don’t appreciate it, then its view of the future likely seems like so much doom and defeatism over nothing.

Oppressive melancholy is a matter of accuracy, in other words. Nobody accuses a physician diagnosing terminal cancer of being too morose, not because his news isn't depressing, but because we presume he is correct. Similarly, if everything Pope Francis believes about the climate, economy, society, and moral ecology were absolutely true, would Laudato still be considered too gloomy? The real substantive critique underpinning shots at the mood of Laudato isn’t that the text is too dreary; it is that the text is mistaken about the necessity of such serious concern. This is the same old political disagreement about climate change that has plagued the United States for a long time, and now it has gone to Church.

Conservatives are not attitudinally opposed to narratives of decline. David Brooks is an especially odd critic to accuse Pope Francis of being impractically committed to Christian values, seeing as Brooks’ entire career is based on a narrative of moral decline largely attributed to the flagging virtues of millennials. Of course, the kind of moral decline Brooks waxes poetical about is the kind that can only be answered with self-help books and programs, while the ills Francis identifies are the kind that have, in some cases, obvious material solutions. One suspects Brooks would have been a great deal less disturbed by Francis’s supposed negativity had he limited his remarks to the problems that can best be solved by publicly shaming single mothers and rhetorically spanking everyone under 30.

But Pope Francis’s vision is broader than that, and, ironically, less dejected. Laudato displays an incredible respect for and interest in the contributions of young people, which would seem to militate against a wholly declinist reading. “Young people,” Francis writes, “demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the suffering of the excluded.” He goes on to note that “in those countries which should be making the greatest changes in consumer habits, young people have a new ecological sensitivity and a generous spirit, and some of them are making admirable efforts to protect the environment.”

With such an investment in the youth of today—who will become the leaders of tomorrow—it is hard for me to locate the misplaced despondency in Laudato. Like any Christian call for change, it certainly has its fiery come-to-Jesus moments. And, like any good Christian call-to-arms, it is also suffused with generosity and hope. At last the tone seems to me quite secondary. If Pope Francis is correct in his analysis, which I believe he is, policing the mood of Laudato is akin to complaining about the tenor of a serious diagnosis while refusing the cure.