a British writer, commentator and co-founder of Catholic Voices, a lay group that works to improve the church’s representation in the media. He is the author of a new biography called The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.
Pope Francis is set to make history by issuing the first-ever comprehensive Vatican teachings on climate change, which will urge 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to take action. The document will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests who will distribute it to their parishioners. Given the sheer number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide, the pope’s clarion call to tackle climate change could reach far more people than even the largest environmental groups. "The document will take a position in favor of the scientific consensus that climate change is real ... and link the deforestation and destruction of the natural environment to the particular economic model of which Pope Francis has been a critic," says our guest, Austen Ivereigh, author of a new biography called "The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope." The pope also plans to address the United Nations General Assembly and convene a summit of the world’s main religions in hopes of bolstering next year’s crucial U.N. climate meeting in Paris.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, for our last report of 2014.
Pope Francis is set to make history by issuing the first-ever comprehensive Vatican teachings on climate change. In an effort to urge Catholics worldwide to take climate action, the pope will issue a rare papal letter, or encyclical, on climate change and human ecology, following a visit in March to Tacloban, the Philippine city devastated in 2012 by Typhoon Haiyan. The document then will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, who will distribute it to their parishioners.
Given the sheer number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide, the pope’s clarion call to tackle climate change could reach far more people than even the largest environmental groups. Globally, there are 1.2 billion Catholics, of which around 75 million live here in the United States. The pope also plans to address the United Nations General Assembly and convene a summit of the world’s main religions in hopes of bolstering next year’s crucial U.N. climate summit in Paris.
Last year, during his first Christmas mass as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis called for protection of the environment from human greed.
POPE FRANCIS: [translated] Lord of heaven and Earth, look upon our planet, frequently exploited by human greed and rapacity. Help and protect all of the victims of natural disasters, especially the beloved people of the Philippines gravely affected by the recent typhoon.
AMY GOODMAN: This year, Pope Francis shocked cardinals, bishops and priests by using his annual Christmas remarks to deliver a scathing critique of the Vatican itself, the central governing body of the Catholic Church. He said the Vatican is plagued with "spiritual Alzheimer’s," "existential schizophrenia," "social exhibitionism" and a lust for power—all of which have resulted in an "orchestra that plays out of tune," he said. Pope Francis also lambasted the gossip, pettiness and rivalry he said were infecting the church. This is part of what he said.
POPE FRANCIS: [translated] There is also the sickness of the stony mind and spirit, of those who have a stone heart and a hard neck, of those who along the way lose their inner serenity, their vivacity and their audacity, and end up hiding behind papers, becoming machines for practices and not men of God. It is dangerous to lose the human sensitivity that we need to cry with those who cry and to rejoice with those who rejoice.
AMY GOODMAN: Pope Francis has also captured global attention for his criticism of capitalism, his softer tone on key social issues including abortion and homosexuality, and his calls to refocus the church toward the needs of the poor. In his personal life, the pope has chosen to live simply at the Vatican, residing in a guest house instead of the Apostolic Palace, forgoing a chauffeured Mercedes in favor a plain black sedan.
He’s also made headlines for his everyday acts of extraordinary compassion. He invited a teenager with Down syndrome, Alberto di Tullio, for a ride in the Popemobile. He embraced and kissed Vinicio Riva, a man severely scarred by a genetic disease. And he washed a dozen prisoners’ feet at a jail for juveniles in Rome. The pope also responded to a letter from a rape survivor by personally calling to console her, saying, "You are not alone."
Most recently, the pope has emerged as a star diplomat, a key player in the thawing of relations between the Cuba government and the United States. Cuban President Raúl Castro thanked him for his support.
PRESIDENT RAÚL CASTRO: [translated] This decision by President Obama deserves respect and recognition from our people. I would like to thank and recognize the support of the Vatican, and especially that of Pope Francis, in helping improve the relations between Cuba and the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the pope offered to assist the United States with another diplomatic hurdle: its efforts to close Guantánamo prison. The Vatican has reportedly offered to help find adequate humanitarian solutions through its international contacts.
Meanwhile, the pope has rejected change in two other areas: the ordination of women to the priesthood and the church’s view on abortion.
Well, for more on Pope Francis, we go to Oxford, England, where we’re joined by his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, a British commentator, writer, co-founder of Catholic Voices. He’s the author of a new biography called The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.
Austen Ivereigh, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with this encyclical that he’s putting out on climate change. How rare and how important is this?
AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Well, first of all, it’s an encyclical, which is the highest form of papal teaching. What that means is it’s a letter that’s sent to the bishops and clergy and indirectly to all the Catholics of the world. And it’s saying this is authoritative church teaching, this needs to be taken very seriously by Catholics. So that, in itself, is a major event.
The fact that it’s also on ecology, on climate change, is also deeply significant, because there has never been a major document on this subject from the church. So, there is a lot of anticipation about it. He’s about to go to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. That’s in mid-January. And then he’ll be issuing this encyclical, we think, in March or possibly April. And it’s going to take a position on the science of climate change. So, this is a case of the church, as it were, wading into a scientific matter and taking a position. As I understand, the document will take a position in favor, if you like, of the scientific consensus that climate change is real.
And then the document will also link the deforestation, the destruction of the natural environment, to the particular economic model of which Pope Francis has been a very stern critic ever since he became pope, and indeed beforehand, a system which creates too much inequality, which regards the unemployed and the elderly as, as it were, to be dispensed with, as leftovers, as he calls them—so, in other words, an economic system which is dysfunctional in its impact on the world’s population. But he’ll also show that excessive consumerism and indeed the pattern of that global economic model is—as it were, the price is being paid by the environment. So it’s going to be a clarion call, as I understand it, for the church to work for changing the system which produces deforestation and climate devastation.
It will also be laying out the basis for the Catholic Church’s thinking on this, prior to what I understand will be a meeting with other world religious leaders and, indeed, civic leaders. In other words, Pope Francis wants to build a global consensus to force—to bring about—help to bring about action later this year, prior to that very important summit, U.N. summit, in Paris on climate change. So it’s about building the momentum to bring about real, effective change in this area.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, ahead of this year’s U.N. climate summit in Lima, Peru, Pope Francis wrote a letter to organizers noting that climate change will, quote, "affect all of humanity, especially the poorest and future generations. What’s more, it represents a serious ethical and moral responsibility." So, how do you expect the bishops, the cardinals, the more than one billion Catholics to respond? What does this mean when the pope focuses on an issue like climate change, Austen Ivereigh?
AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Well, I think it will be, of course, problematic. It will be controversial, because there are some church leaders, but also some very prominent Catholics, who are, if not outright skeptics on climate change, are at least skeptical of some of the claims being made about climate change. And they will also be skeptical of his attempts to link that to a particular form of capitalism.
We’ve already seen this critique when he came out in November last year with his first major document—didn’t have the authority of this encyclical, but still a major teaching document—called "The Joy of the Gospel," in which he had some very harsh words, some very stern words for the—for, as it were, the liberal capitalist system, of which—and he was speaking very much from the point of view of the poor. He always does. This is one of the things that distinguishes Francis’s voice. He takes the position of the developing world, of the poor, of the people who, if you like, are normally ignored in these discussions, who aren’t present at the table. So he’s positioning himself—and the church indirectly—very definitely as the advocate of, in the profit for those people.
Now, in doing that, he’s naturally going to find that there is pushback from business interests, from prominent Catholics in the world of business and finance, who are going to probably attack, no doubt, the—some of the science behind the encyclical, but will also critique him as he was criticized last year. He’ll be criticized for naivety. He’ll be criticized for wading into an area over which they say the church has no direct understanding or direct knowledge.
The answer to that, of course, is the church has always taken a very, very clear position, very strong position in its moral teaching about capitalism. And this goes back to late 19th century, 1891, Pope Leo XIII, who issued his great encyclical, Rerum Novarum, "on new things," which was precisely an indictment of the way in which industrialization and contemporary capitalism had divided the world into the haves and the have-nots, and left the poor at the mercy of the rich. So, in fact, Pope Francis, even though it will be greeted, I think, as a great novelty, in fact is speaking out of a, if you like, radical prophetic tradition which has been consistent in the church throughout the popes of the 20th century, ever since the late 19th century.
But he’ll be doing so about, if you like, what he sees as the contemporary equivalent now of the debate about industrialization and the market in the 19th century—same kind of moral critique. Look at the devastation. Look at the impact that the economic model is having. If we have an economic system which produces, of course, tremendous wealth, tremendous growth in many parts of the world, but produces poverty, chronic long-term unemployment in other parts of the world, and results in devastation of the environment, he’s going to say this is not a system that works. We need to have a system where the human being comes first, where the needs of humanity—if you like, an economy at the service of the needs of humanity, rather than making human beings, particularly the poor, instruments of a machine which benefits the few.
That will be the kind of response, that will be the kind of critique, if you like, that Francis will be making in this encyclical. So it looks to generate, actually, an extraordinary amount of debate. My understanding, from the people who are involved in the preparation of this document in the Vatican, is that in fact it’s been very, very carefully thought through, particularly the scientific aspect of it, precisely because the church does not want to be, as it were, dismissed by having a naive position on the science.
AMY GOODMAN: Austen, even the pope’s name—he’s the first to take the papal name Francis after the reform figure Francis of Assisi. Last year, he explained why he chose the name, saying, quote, "For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we don’t have a very good relationship with creation, do we? ... He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man," he said. Austen Ivereigh, if you could respond?
AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Exactly right. I was there. I was there when he said those words to the 5,000 journalists shortly after his election. He was explaining why it was he took the name of Francis of Assisi. So he’s identifying himself with a figure who is really the icon, in the Catholic tradition, of poverty, of humility, of identification with the poor, but also of course a man who was famous for his love of creation, his love of the natural world, where he saw mankind—as it were, man fits into, human beings fit into God’s creation, and God’s creation is much more than just us. We are stewards of the planet. We have been entrusted with the responsibility for the planet, and we must not damage it. We must care for it. We must embrace it. We must support it. So, absolutely, by taking the name of Francis of Assisi, he was signaling from the very beginning that he was going to be doing this. And I understand that this ecology encyclical has been under preparation almost ever since, really, he was elected.
He’s also involved a number of theologians who have been, as it were, out of favor for some time, including the Brazilian Leonardo Boff and other Latin American liberation theologians, who have long critiqued capitalism from the point of view of its effect on the environment. So, all in all, Francis is absolutely positioning himself in that radical stream of the Catholic tradition stretching back to St. Francis of Assisi.
AMY GOODMAN: Austen Ivereigh, we’re going to continue the discussion of the pope this year, from capitalism and climate change to Cuba, war and peace. Austen Ivereigh’s new book is called The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. We’ll continue with him in Oxford, England, in a moment.