I saw a meme on Twitter the other day that said, “Socialism: empty butter shelves. Capitalism: I can’t believe it’s not butter. Traditionalism: Grandma makes the butter.”

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, has defied critics’ interpretation on both the Left and the Right, largely because they have ignored the third, traditionalist option. The world has forgotten what to make of a political document rooted not in the familiar binary, but in a third, more ancient soil.

Pope Francis’s plea, like the Gospel he proclaims, comes first as a sledgehammer to every vested interest we have, and then as a balm to bind our wounds in community. When the Pope tells us that human beings are to blame for the degradation of the natural world (including climate change), it is one piece in the puzzle of sin and brokenness. Nearly every problem on earth is the product of human beings’ poor choices, traced all the way back to our first biblical ancestors. And only God’s help can get us out of our mess.

But this kind of talk does not play very well for a politician. It is no surprise that Jeb Bush (a Roman Catholic) has distanced himself from his spiritual leader: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”


Bush continued, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

There, there, Francis. Thanks for chiming in. We’ll talk to you when we need you. But liberals are no better. They too are blind to the source and depth of the pope’s critique. President Obama welcomed Laudato Si, and Nancy Pelosi gushed about it, concluding, “We really must listen to His Holiness as we go forward.”

But would anyone in the Democratic Party agree with Pope Francis that “since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion”? Or this one:

How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo?

Especially in the wake of this summer’s horrifying Planned Parenthood videos, Francis’s words are a wake-up call. And so again, if the Left appreciate this seemingly more liberal pope, they only see him in part. Francis is advocating butter churning grandmas, not Republicans or Democrats. Protecting the environment is not at heart a simple matter of policy. It is a question of the mission of God, which necessarily tramples over the values of the kingdoms of this world.

Laudato Si is an urgent appeal to escape the horror that may already be upon us. And there may not be any easy scientific fix. The pope, who is a regular Twitter user, knows technology is not our salvation. In fact, the tail often wags the dog. He writes, “It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology.”

Today’s crises require holistic, counter-cultural solutions, which will necessarily entail reimagining every system we have in place, including how we think of personal possessions. (The pope’s recent call for Roman Catholic churches and monasteries in Europe to shelter refugees is yet another example of this.) Jeb Bush would certainly not like this line: “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable.”

Every human thing is up for grabs in a world that humans inhabit only because God allows us. And so religion, much to the chagrin of both Right and Left, is both private and public. And the Gospel is not simply shared on both sides of the aisle, but is the bane of all ideologies. Pope Francis’s encyclical is not born of the environmental movement, but of Christian theology. It maps very poorly onto Western individualism of any variety, and let us thank God it does. It is traditionalism at its best, and it is worth a read. In full.

Andrew Petiprin’s other posts may be found here

The featured image is a graffiti in the “Abode of Chaos” Museum of Contemporary Art of Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, France. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Andrew Petiprin is Assistant Director in the Office of Faith Formation at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville. He is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself

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