We have become accustomed to warnings that TV news reports from war zones may be disturbing. They usually are distressing. But so are reports on the consequences of climate change. And they come without such warnings despite the dire implications of further global warming.
On 4 October, St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day, Pope Francis published Laudato Deum “Praise God.... for all his creatures” - words taken from the song St. Francis composed in 1224 celebrating the unity of creation and his place in it. Eight years had passed since Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si, (Praise Be) addressed to ‘every person living on this planet’ about “care for our common home”. Laudato Deum is addressed to “all the people of Good Will”. It is brief and, avoiding Vaticanese, employs relatively accessible language about the climate crisis. It is itself a warning and, unlike a formal encyclical, explicitly a call to action.
“I have realised that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing breaking point”, the Pope writes, citing the irreversible nature of changes such as the melting of polar ice which could not be reversed for hundreds of years. “Regrettably, the climate crisis is not exactly a matter that interests the great economic powers, whose concern is with the greatest profit possible at minimal cost and in the shortest amount of time”. This is the Pope’s forthright verdict. He pointedly mentions that the USA has double the amount of carbon emissions per head of China.
Francis establishes the link between fires, droughts, floods and hurricanes and the accelerating increase in greenhouse gas emissions, refuting the evidence-deniers. Unusually for a papal document he draws on authoritative scientific sources, notably the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to prove that their increased incidence and severity is caused by human actions.
But he also takes his analysis much deeper. The Pope sees our current predicament growing out of what he calls the ‘technocratic paradigm’, doubling-down on his critique of this mindset in Laudato Si. “Deep down it consists in thinking as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such”. When human beings behave as if they are “autonomous, omnipotent and limitless” and “claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies”.
Hugely increased power, enabled by technological developments, lies in hands which ‘cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint". The ‘ethical decadence of real power’, Francis believes, disguises itself by clever marketing and fake information. The world has become “an object of exploitation, unbridled use and unlimited ambition”.
Instead, he explains, “we are part of nature, included in it, and thus in constant interaction with it”, a perception he acknowledges still cherished by many indigenous peoples. Francis shares the traditional Judaeo-Christian belief in the unique and central value of the human being; but he recognises the need today for what he calls a “situated anthropocentrism” in an “integral ecology” (Laudato Si) meaning that “human life is incomprehensible and unsustainable without other creatures”.
All well and good the liberal secular world might say but what is the practical application of these ideas and insights? How might they be brought down to earth and take shape in Governments’ plans? These questions, which are also often strictures, to a great degree misunderstand the nature of religious discourse. The Pope is using his position and authority as head of a global Church with 1.3 billion members to sound an alarm, to arouse people to expect, to demand, effective action from governments, and to change themselves. We are a very long way from the world of Rishi Sunak’s seven bins for sorting rubbish - though Francis is not squeamish about condemning the way our rubbish is dumped in the developing world.
His discussion of obstacles in the way of coordinated international action, like his intention to attend COP28 in Dubai this November, just announced this week, demonstrates his goal of provoking urgent action in the world of practical politics. For a papal communication Laudato Deum is detailed and crystal clear. There are sections on the progress and failures arising from the COP series and even what to expect from COP28. The Pope also writes about the need for some means of enforcing multilateral agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the general weakness of international politics in problem-solving. He will certainly be promoting a Loss and Damage Fund to mitigate the ravages of climate change on the vulnerable countries of the global South.
Francis’ vision, shaped by his experience in Latin America of effective change coming from below upwards, may seem utopian. He holds up the international treaty on antipersonnel mines as one example of effective NGO advocacy. But this is much honoured in the breach. Today a global civil society as an equal, benign and responsible player in international relations, curbing the prevarication and corruption of governments, seems like an ever-receding mirage. Governments’ - tragic - nationalism and short-sighted version of national interest, their de facto rejection of the global common good – which Francis has written about elsewhere - is no less damaging than the ‘technocratic paradigm’ which accompanies it.
A few days ago, Greta Thunberg was dragged away from a peaceful demonstration in London outside a meeting between fossil-fuel executives and government ministers. Her arrest highlights both the power, cynicism and irresponsibility of governments and the responsibility, idealism and weakness of young people’s peaceful protest. They are deeply anxious about their future - anxiety caused, at least, in part by the pusillanimity and inaction of governments.
Religious bodies and organisations are doing their best to broadcast Francis’ writings on social media, and their best has got better in recent years. But we want to be diverted from frightening news. In the face of the horrific massacre in Israel of more than 1,400 Jews and the abduction of some 200 hostages, precipitating a grave crisis in the Middle East, anger was directed at the BBC. What word should have been used to describe the perpetrators of these horrors? We seem unable to hold the big picture in mind for long, whether the causes of violent extremism and war, and how to counter them, or the causes of climate change and how to mitigate them. And if in pain and anger we give up on universal values, justice and human dignity, what ethical resources remain to solve our greatest problems of global scope?
When a much-loved religious leader in Rome, with an old man’s sense of time running out, made his alarm call on 4 October, we most probably didn’t hear his message either from the pulpit or from the mass media. So neither were we likely to be disturbed by it. We were free to concentrate instead on how to get home during the railway drivers’ strike.
See TheArticle 25/10/2023
Sometimes a seemingly minor story speaks reams about this Government. Last week, The House, Parliament’s in-house magazine, reported ‘a former senior adviser to the [Church of England’s] bishops in the House of Lords’ as saying that bishops were coming away from encounters with junior Home Office staff ‘feeling like lepers’. Relations with the Home Office had become ‘toxic’ and ‘unfixable’. Might then Christianity be one of those ‘luxury beliefs’ shared with the ‘woke elite’ which Home Secretary Suella Braverman, during her 3 October Conservative Party Conference speech, positioned herself as opposing?
During the Lords debates on the Illegal Migration Act of July 2023, the Archbishop of Canterbury described its key measures as ‘morally unacceptable and politically impractical’. His forthright condemnation seems to be the reason why, when he ‘reached out’ to the Home Secretary – Americanisms seem to have reached into Lambeth Palace – he was rebuffed. Radio 4’s 1st October Sunday Programme ran the story with comment from Dominic Grieve, a practising Anglican and former Conservative Attorney General purged from the Party for incorrect views on BREXIT. Grieve’s view was that Suella Braverman’s refusal to discuss immigration with the head of the established Church flew in the face of constitutional conventions and was ‘inexcusable’ and ‘extraordinarily rude’.
Chris Loder, an Anglican and Conservative MP for West Dorset responded that the Lords Spiritual, all 26 of them, were politically biased: they took a left-wing approach, acted as ‘campaigners and commentators’, and 96% of their votes - where are you More or Less when we need you? - had been cast against the Government. If Loder’s voting figures for the bishops were to stand up to examination, they would be open to interpretation as a reflection on the tenor of government legislation as well as the bishops’ ‘luxury belief’ that strangers should be welcomed and the needs of the poor prioritised. Not just a storm in a tea-cup. More revealing and important.
The strong Church-State disagreement about migrancy reveals a fundamental, possibly irresolvable, conflict between values. And there lies the question for Government about both domestic and foreign policy which cannot be resolved even by the best legal minds in the Supreme Court. Put simply should policy contribute to a global common good and to the common life of domestic Society? Or should policy enhance freedom of individuals and support the aspirations of individual citizens?
In the rosy glow of Tony Blair’s landslide victory, pre-millennials may remember the late Robin Cook’s inaugural speech as Foreign Secretary in May 1997 and Cook’s careful branding of future policy, as having an ‘ethical dimension’. Despite avoiding promising an ‘ethical foreign policy’, nevertheless he was treated with derision. Nor did the policy last the course under Blair’s leadership. Cook himself resigned in March 2003 over the Iraq war. The promotion of peace, human rights, environmentalism, democracy and prosperity were the key values lying behind Cook’s goals: security for nations, arms control and disarmament, abolition of landmines, protection of the environment, promotion of exports, diplomacy seeking peace and democracy globally. They still add up to a desirable programme embodying ethical values even if difficult to implement.
So what might foreign and domestic policy with an ethical dimension look like today? Is such an aspiration naïve utopianism? At home, the Prime Minister’s policy decisions presented in his Conference speech appear to be based on hopes of clawing back votes lost in the BREXIT/Johnson/Truss debacle rather than a clear set of values. The Uxbridge by-election is won by opposing Mayor Sadiq Khan’s attempt to clean up Greater London’s air. The Conservative Party discovers it is pro-car. Voters don’t like windfarms on their doorstep. License new drilling for oil and politicise measures to combat climate change. The “growing role of parental wealth transfers in driving differences in life outcomes...” widens inequality (Will Hutton Observer 1 October). Float the possibility of abolishing inheritance tax. Fears of cultural ‘swamping’ and the increasing pressure on public services debilitated by 13 years of Tory rule, certainly some votes there. Attack and override the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers.
A negligible number of votes in foreign policy apart, perhaps, from Ukraine? So, no electoral harm in Foreign Minister, James Cleverly, raising human rights issues abroad, for example, with China, or Saudi Arabia - whilst courting them for access to their lucrative markets. But how concerned about promoting human rights is a government that floats the possibility of leaving the European Convention of Human Rights, a Convention which a former British Government played a significant part in creating? Or how committed to human rights is a Home Secretary who derides the 1998 UK Human Rights Act as ‘The Criminals Rights Act’, and in New York calls in question the UN 1951 Refugee Convention?
Church leaders make choices different from governments. Both Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury share a ‘luxury belief’ in a just society and its values derived from a two thousand year-old tradition rooted in the Gospels. They wish to see the common good flourish. Some of their beliefs and the demands of the common good will be costly and inconvenient to implement. Some will be contentious. But what is most contentious is a government that promotes the views and values of an extreme-right wing minority at worst like Suella Braverman who dismisses compassion as squeamishness. This is a government that rejects dialogue over matters of national importance, including Britain’s global standing.
See TheArticle 06/10/2023