Someone has said that Pope Francis is really a Protestant. He is, if Protestant is defined as someone who protests. His recent encyclical Laudato si’ is a protest against the often irresponsible industries as they pollute the environment.
The Pope especially protests the ways in which coal is burnt in the production of electricity. He is right to protest. What comes out of the smoke stacks of coal-fed electric power plants is linked to 50, 000 deaths a year, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility. Because children and the elderly among the poor are the most vulnerable, the Pope, following his namesake, St. Francis, has a special concern for those that Jesus calls “the least of these.”
This encyclical is not just a plea for curtailing the pollution of God’s planet; the Pope is also calling for a change in our cultural values. In this encyclical, he protests the heightened individualism of our modern world that is concerned only with personal comfort and pleasure and, instead, he calls for an ethic that highlights a commitment to “the common good.” For Red Letter Christians that means that we must ask ourselves, before we do things that impact the environment, what Jesus would do if Jesus was in our place. There is no doubt that all that Jesus did and calls us to do puts the welfare of others above materialistic self-interest.
Like Jacque Ellul, the 20th century French sociologist, and the British economist, E.F. Schumacher, this pope protests the technocratic society which is not only using up the earth’s non-renewable resources, but also creating means of production that destroy meaningful work, create unemployment, and generate low paying jobs among the poor.
In case you think that Pope Francis is some kind of Luddite, rejecting all forms of technological advances, you really should read Laudato si’. If you do, you will find that he very much encourages the kind of technology that will reap great benefits for the poor of the world. He singles out the invention and the deployment of solar panels as an example of good technology. This particular means for generating electricity could and should be made available to poor families, not only in America, but also in villages and hamlets in the third world.
Most of us have been unaware that the cost of solar panels has dropped 75% in the last six years, and there are indications that the costs soon will drop dramatically further. In light of that fact, Pope Francis proposes that as part of foreign aid packages, countries like the United States should require that receiving nations–as a condition for receiving fund– make solar panels available for poor citizens, rather than using their grant money primarily for the benefit of the rich.
Of course, this sets up the pope as an ideological enemy of the likes of the Koch brothers who are willing to spend 500 million dollars in the 2016 election to back a Republican candidate who is committed to stopping government endorsement and support for forms of energy that do not use fossil fuels. Their reason is that they have become billionaires through their investments in the coal and oil industries.
As influential as Pope Francis has become, I seriously doubt whether his Biblically based efforts to save the environment will succeed, given the opposition from those special interest groups that are focused on maximizing profits–even at the expense of the rest of us, and especially at the expense of the poor. But then, God’s prophets are seldom taken seriously during their lifetime. Let’s pray that Pope Francis is an exception. With God, all things are possible.