It’s really very telling that the Pope is issuing a letter on climate change and that this is anticipated as having some huge effect. In fact the very anticipation is the effect and the letter itself, whatever its full content, has become redundant. The Pope will speak and so his voice goes before him out into the world of men. There is a lot to disentangle in here. This is a quick schematic note, but here are some of the things all bundled up in this that I find interesting:
1. The Pope is represented less as God’s voice on Earth and more as the voice of the global south: as European population decline and those of the global south continue to increase this Pope and his legacy become increasingly important.
2. One of the biggest names in radical political criticism is the leader of a conservative, wealthy and deeply problematic institution with a bloody history and a continued repression of reproductive freedoms. There is the problem of hypocrisy here, and it shouldn’t be obviated, but there is also the weirdness of the head of such an institution fulfilling the role typically guaranteed to inheritors of the Enlightenment Project. Richard Dawkins has called Catholicism a ‘death cult’, but here it is issuing a “moral imperative” in the affirmation of life over the destructive forces of capitalism.
3. This isn’t so straight forward though. The criticism is couched in terms of an ethical critique of the Money God, a Religion of Money, that has implicitly, by dint of who is giving the address, has displaced the Christian God. A lot has been made about the ascendancy of Islam as a radical political vector in terms of its communist and (more so) its reactionary forms, the latter typically identified with Al Quaeda and Isis. These groups could be thought of as a symptoms of a ‘barbarism of modernity’ and I think that if that holds then we’d be obliged to extend this kind of logic to a radicalised Catholicism. The Catholic Church isn’t without a history of politically violent interventions in the profane world, and indeed a more Protestant Christianity has been implicated in the wars that engendered much of the resurgence of Islam. Here is a return of a Catholicism that wades into things. It thus belongs to the same kind, if not by any means the same degree, as political Islam and the American fundamentalism bemoaned by the European commentariat that now proclaim this intervention. At a certain level then this letter is symptomatic of the immunological flare-up of religion in general.
4. That the leader of the Church is talking in terms of a “Religion of Money” in order to reorient the flock towards a real religion of God makes a mistake that only the religious believer like Pope Francis could: he mistakes capitalism as a heresy worshipping a False God (perhaps even really as a Satanic inversion of Christianity, a worship of demonic forces?) and thereby re-emphasises his commitment to the True God. But the point he is missing is that Money is as much a God as is his own at the level that both operate as regulators of social life and as “normative abstractions”. Insofar as religion are complex delusional systems at the level of content there is nothing to decide between Catholicism and capitalism.
5. That religion is such a big force for much of the world, despite recent EuroAmerican philosophical trends towards rationalism, means that the Pope’s letter could well mean a shift of emphasis towards ecological ethics in general. We cannot neglect the fact that at the level of material efficacy traditional religions like Catholicism are much more powerful and appeal to a much broader number of people than does any communist or other left-wing group, ideology or sensibility. If the Church can be deployed towards ends that are beneficial to producing a tolerable social existence, and if the Church is actually interested in doing so (unlike so much of the anarchists and the left) then that is all for the good.
6. The Pope briefly mentions suicide to ask the question whether the human race is committing a kind of slow motion suicide by ecocide? This is a question that motivates me quite a lot. The most obvious answer is a straight forward “no, and we’re insulted to boot! We’re all living by the logic of life, unlike you’re hideous death cult”.
A more scientific answer, if suicidology is in any way a science at all, would also proffer a no: slow motion suicide is not something that exists. Engaging in self-harming or other para-suicidal behaviours may increase the risk of suicide by habituation but there is no way to think that behaviours or habits that result in death that are not consciously designed to bring about that death should count as suicide.
Of course the Pope is the leader of a Christian tribe that is among those that have most strongly punished suicide, having condemned the suicides to the most terrible part of hell and sealing them off from any form of redemption or forgiveness. In fact the Pope is asking the question from the perspective of his “ethics”, here revealed as concealing the same old Christian moralism that values “Life” above the condition or dignity of any particular fleshly life.
My own answer, different to any of these, is to entertain the possibility that this is not simply an abuse of suicide as a metaphor. I don’t consider suicide to be an evil, nor do I consider the temptation to suicide as an evil: under the correct conditions suicidality might be the most liberating trauma a human being could experience, a kind of being-towards-death that exceeds the empty academicism that that phrase usually entails. If humanity were in some sense engaged in a huge death-mediation at the level of the species, a kind of contemplation and approach of our own finitude and mortality, I think that this could be among the most important and potentially enriching and affirming experiences we could undergo: a kind of species-wide mysticism, a total awakening. But this is me in my most optimistic moments, although weirdly it is an optimism that is drenched in the grim midnight thoughts of suicide and born of my experiences of being unable and unwilling to provide suicidal people I have known in both my personal and professional life with terrible cliches- a nihilist optimism in Baudrillard’s phrase, or the acceptance of a certain perverse logic to use a Ballardian formula. This is actually part of the thesis of the work on suicide I keep saying I’m working on. In fact that work would be a meditation on suicidality and extinction. I’ve drifted though.
To reiterate, no I don’t think the Pope is right on this score. Humanity isn’t “suicidal”, but being placed in proximity with its own possible extinction could, under the right circumstances, be incredibly liberating. In this sense the Catholic abuse of the metaphor of suicide, its coupling to the absolute excommunication of suicides from the Church, strikes me as a blocking of that liberatory potential, a looking away that is conservative in the same way that people often are after a phase of rapid social change.
7. “If we destroy it, it will destroy us”. It’s quite a strange turn of phrase, and really highly modernist. The Pope is invoking nature, glossed as Creation, as the product of God’s labour, as not just autonomous of us but as being so in a way that demands its subjugation, its domestication. Rather like a wild animal that stalks the border of the tribe’s little patch of territory, we have to be watch full and dominant lest it pick off our children in the night. More than this is the sense of ‘Gaia’s revenge’, certainly of a vengeful Creation that is closer to the God of the Old Testament, the Gnostic’s spiteful and wrathful demiurge. We shouldn’t forget that in popular Catholic theology this world is a fallen world ruled over by Satan: there are dark forces waiting to be released. So why have I said it is “highly modernist”? Because modernity is in part about the rational explication and subjugation of nature to humanity’s needs. A Bookchinian might say that “subjugation” is a step too far and that it is in fact a religious fervour that departs from reason (or other pathologies of rationality) that is to blame for ecological disaster. The accelerationist would simply say that if nature is to destroy us than we ought to reprogram it utilising the geoengineering solutions on hand- a technological fix the Pope dismisses. As the Xenofeminists say “if nature is unjust, change nature”. But the Pope prefers to change hearts and minds. His radicalism extends only so far as a realignment of subjectivity to an Ideal, and with that he joins so many other bland psychotics.
The Pope’s address is thus a pretty ambiguous little letter. Like the Cardinal Turkson before him the Pope is addressing us as though we stood on the brink of the Fall. Would a second Fall be the eschatological fulfilment of things, or would it just be a deepening of our estrangement from God? These are questions that don’t make much sense from an atheist position, and it is from that position that we have to make sense of the Pope’s letter. Given the forgoing brief and schematic analysis I’d point to the Pope’s radicalism as inherently ambiguous and unstable, shifting between a reactive conservatism, a stabilizing force, and a potential catalyst of radicalisation among a southern proletariat that could mirror the phenomena of Isis. The left looks on and is embarrassed by the conviction of a community of faith.