Matt Taibbi gets it exactly write in his recent article, Why Are So Many Pundits Trashing the Pope? This sums it up, “We’re losing the ability to imagine a dignified life without money. Which is pretty messed up.” As he noted in the article, the encyclical letter is entirely in keeping with these kinds of things. Basically, he’s saying, “Shame on you! Your greed is ruining the planet!” And popes have been saying that for almost two thousand years. It isn’t the pope who has changed; it is the people. And more to the point, it is “opinion setters” like David Brooks.
I was very interested recently to see the social conservative reaction to Laudato si’. It was more or less, “I don’t turn to the church on practical matters. The church should stick with issues of morality.” It’s fine with me: listen to the pope or ignore him. But don’t pretend that what the pope is talking about here isn’t about morality. Abortion policy is practical. Same sex marriage policy is practical. And global warming policy is practical. And they are all moral issues. And to pretend otherwise is the height of hubris. What people like Jeb Bush are really saying is, “I get to decide which issues are moral — not the pope.” Fine. Just don’t bring religion into it when it comes to the issues where you do want to wrap yourself in a cloak of morality.
The problem people of all stripes have with Pope Francis is not what he thinks. What he thinks just isn’t that different from what other popes have thought. It’s all about emphasis. And with Pope Francis, we get scolding of a different kind. Pope John Paul II seemed to spend all his time telling Africa that it shouldn’t use condoms. Well, that same idea is in Pope Francis’ newest encyclical. He just put it in the more mild way of claiming that consumerism and not overpopulation is what’s really harming the environment. (Taibbi thinks this is wrong, but I side with the pope on this.) But as is clear from Taibbi’s quote above: consumerism is the religion in modern America.
So we have a bit of a problem. But it has been with us for a long time. It’s been at least two decades since I first noticed that conservative Christians had started to distort the traditional teachings of Christianity. As unpleasant as the history of the religion has most often been, it has always given lip service to higher ideals than the comforts of life. That has long been its biggest selling point to the poor. But it isn’t just the “prosperity cults” that now claim that Jesus wants you to be rich (even though it will require being squeezed through the eye of a needle).
God’s elder brother David Brooks wrote last week, “Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony and love…” Lindsay Abrams at Slate responded, “And just to be sure that we aren’t overlooking the irony, this is David Brooks, the anointed preacher of How to Live and How to Think, telling you not to speak from an exclusively moralistic standpoint…” But David Brooks’ idea of morality is that it is a club to be used to hit the poor over the head for being poor. The wealthy — and by extension, wealthy countries — are necessarily moral. They have money, and as all Americans are supposed to know, Jesus, Allah, and Yahweh want you to be rich. They wouldn’t have allowed you to be rich in this world if you weren’t pleasing them!