10/01/2015 12:30 EDT | Updated 10/01/2016 05:12 EDT

Why a Popular Pope Is Willing to Be Unpopular

Pope Francis talks to journalists during a press conference he held while en route to Italy, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. Pope Francis returned to the Vatican Monday at the end of a 10-day trip to Cuba and the United States. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)

The visit of Pope Francis to the United States and his unprecedented address to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations in the same week is making headlines everywhere and ruffling some feathers too. Around the world people of all faiths simply love this guy and maybe what we love about him most is that unlike most leaders, he is willing to challenge us even if we don't like the message.

Earlier this year the Pope issued an encyclical on "Care of Our Common Home" in which he forcefully addressed both the dangers of climate change, the economic inequality inherent in the excesses of capitalism, and the need for us to take seriously our stewardship of Earth.

The Encyclical made headlines and drew the ire of conservative politicians, even those of the Catholic faith, who suggested that the Pope keep to "matters of religion and leave science to the scientists." A Bloomberg news poll featured this headline as the Pope began his first full day of his visit to the United States: America Loves Pope Francis, but Not His Stance on Climate Change. It is worth noting that the poll did not actually ask if Americans agreed with the Pope's views on climate change but asked if they agreed with his "chastising those who deny climate change."

What most Americans and Canadians really should do is read the Pope's encyclical. Rather than a political tirade, what they would discover is a thoughtful, measured and powerful homily on the dysfunctional and unsustainable relationship human beings have with the very planet that gave us life. From loss of biodiversity to the dire state of the oceans, the gross inequality that permeates the planet and yes, climate change, he calls us to consider the place we play in the creation whether or not we believe it be God created or a cosmic shot of good luck.

Contrary to popular belief, the document is not only about climate change but challenges us to rethink our relationship to the earth and to each other. Drawing on St. Francis and others from his tradition, the Pope talks poignantly about the beauty of the earth and the way in which all the life found on Earth has dignity and is an expression of the creation. Rather than some romantic ideal he notes "such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously."

Although he rails against special interests in the encyclical, those who for their own economic gain might thwart efforts to clean up the oceans or reduce carbon emissions, he rightfully reminds us that something even less sinister lies at the root of our inaction. He writes: "Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity."

To those who say the Pope should stick to religion, you might take pause with this line in the encyclical: "On many concrete questions, the church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair." In other words the Pope is saying "come on folks just look around and see what we have done to the rest of creation. The time has come to take seriously the careless, wanton way we have treated the Earth and the role that each of us are playing in that process."

In the end the encyclical is more important than whatever issues it addresses; it challenges us to see the world and our place in it differently. The Pope says: "In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word "creation" has a broader meaning than "nature", for it has to do with God's loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion. If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power."

The Pope calls us to hope and to action: "Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts."


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