• Ariel Sun

On Pope Francis, Climate Change, and Global Capitalism

Updated: Dec 15, 2018

This article was first published in December, 2015 on Public Seminar.

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato si’: On Care for our Common Home, has drawn worldwide attention to climate change and its relationship to global capitalism in advance of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris in late November/early December. The stir created by Pope Francis is in itself notable, highlighting as it does how so few, if any, spiritual or political leaders had previously addressed the problem so forthrightly.

In this age of short-term and self-centered gratification, concern with climate change is a hard sell. Although the consensus among scientists is that we are well along the path, if not past the point of no return, toward serious disruptions of human life, the short-term economic costs of limiting carbon emissions are huge. The auto and trucking industries, the suburban house-building industries, the energy industries, advertising, media, among many other sectors, would have to be downsized and/or retooled. There is no question but that the economies of the economically developed world would take a severe hit. The economies of the so-called economically “developing” world would be set back in their efforts to keep pace with the material comforts they see people enjoying in North America and Europe. On the other hand, climate change, it is generally agreed among scientists, would sooner or later make large sections of the globe uninhabitable through drought and flooding. There would be massive migrations of people with accompanying armed conflicts. The economies of those parts of the world where the climate would remain viable for agriculture and habitation would be disrupted by an influx of immigrants, mostly from coastal areas that were already economically impoverished. But this negative fall-out from climate change would be years down the road, far enough away that the changes would be, or rather are, imperceptible to most people, even when hurricanes, floods and droughts become increasingly frequent. The idea that our children and grandchildren will pay the price seems rather abstract to most people, along with the passing on of huge amounts of government and personal debt to the next generations. So much could happen between now and then, people reason, heretofore un-thought of solutions might be found. There are so many other more pressing problems on which to focus our attention and energy. Anyway, the worst consequences seem far away, in places like Bangladesh (unless you live in that part of the world) where there is already unthinkable suffering going on. We are already well accustomed to screening out many forms of unthinkable suffering.

In this context, it seems extraordinary to me that Pope Francis has put climate change at the top of his agenda, along with the toll taken by the profit motive, especially short-term profit, as it drives the consumption of energy. He has taken a position that puts him at odds with the short- and medium-term economic self-interest of many, if not most, Catholics around the world. Remember, however, that the welfare of the economically impoverished is a central concern for many religious figures over the years, certainly at the core of Jesus’ concerns, the greed and power hunger of the Vatican over many centuries notwithstanding. This pope’s Patron Saint Francis, along with Buddha and a number of other prophetic figures, were born to power and wealth. They knew that world, then turned their backs on it. In this sense, what Pope Francis is doing has a long and venerable history in the world’s religions, despite the many destructive effects of organized and identity-focused religions throughout the ages, perhaps outweighing religion’s professed values.

There are a variety of ways of looking at what Pope Francis is doing as he expresses concern about climate change and the economic system that, in his view, promotes a lopsided emphasis on short-term corporate and individual profit. Some have said that his concerns are political rather than religious, that he should not frame political issues as religious ones; further that his area of expertise is theology, not economics. These critiques of the Pope’s statements seek to marginalize him and his positions as theological as opposed to political or economic, as if religion existed in a rarified realm disconnected from the way economic and political power is exercised in this world. There is, of course, dispute about how to put into practice the value placed, in most if not all religions, on care of the poor and disenfranchised. These waters are muddied by claims that the pursuit of self-interest and profit on the part of the well-to-do benefit everyone, including the poor. Thus, those on the right politically have argued that when corporations and individuals profit, the benefits trickle down throughout the social order as jobs are created and pension funds thrive. On the other side, the liberation theology movements of Latin America that have heavily influenced this Pope view North American multi-national corporations as exploitative and oppressive of the poor. One can view the positions taken by this Pope as advocating that concern for our fellow suffering human beings directly inform all conversations and actions taken with respect to how political power and economic wealth are constituted and distributed.

The interweaving of theology, politics, and economics is evident in the functioning of the Catholic Church itself. Questions about self-interest, corruption, and greed have arisen with respect to the Vatican and the Church around the world. Any expectation that a religious organization should be above such human behavior is another way of marginalizing religion. There are such things, of course, as naked hypocrisy and rationalization that need to be distinguished, as best we can, from truly mixed and intertwined motives.

Then there are the Pope’s possible political calculations with respect to the Catholic Church itself. Catholicism is on the wane in the rich countries of Europe and North America, while it thrives in much of the economically “developing” world, especially in Latin America. The economically poor in these regions of the world are both most likely to view global capitalism as exploitative and oppressive, and most likely to be directly affected by climate change. In this sense, the positions taken by Pope Francis make political sense; they speak to the core constituency of the Catholic Church, with respect to past, present, and future concerns.

Does this political level of Pope Francis’s actions mean that he is just another shrewd Pope seeking to extend the power and wealth of the Vatican? Or is he a prophetic voice selflessly advocating for the interests of the disenfranchised and silenced? It is misleading to polarize the question in this way. We need to find a way to think and speak about religion/spirituality and politics in a way that acknowledges their co-existence in religious and political discourse.

The psychoanalytic way of thinking about polarizing vs. multi-dimensional ways of thinking, on an individual level, is constituted by the notions of “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” positions. Very generally, the paranoid schizoid position refers to a psychological state dominated by polarization, by either-or thinking, what psycho-analysts call “splitting.” Extrapolating to a political or large group level, from a paranoid-schizoid [1] perspective, either the Pope’s position on global warming is idealistic, or it is pragmatic and political. There is no middle ground in paranoid-schizoid thinking.

By contrast, the depressive [2] position is all about the middle ground. The Pope’s position can be seen as both idealistic and pragmatic and political. In a very broad application of these concepts to individual psychology and large group, political phenomena, the depressive position gives rise to all sorts of complex-minded, multi-dimensional thinking, whereas the paranoid-schizoid position gives rise to one-dimensional thinking. The way psychoanalysts use these concepts is, in itself, an example of depressive position thinking, in that the concepts are themselves not polarized. For example, paranoid schizoid and depressive are positions, places to inhabit, not stages in a developmental progression, where one is more mature or healthy than the other. We all need both ways of thinking. Without the paranoid-schizoid position we would be drowning in complexity, unable to take strong positions or action. Without the depressive position, we could not listen to others with diverging points of view or be thoughtful and reflective about what we say and do. The notion that we need a co-existence of paranoid-schizoid, or polarizing, thinking, and depressive, or complex-minded, thinking, is, paradoxically, an example of the ultimate supremacy of the depressive position.

Pope Francis took on the name of a Saint — Francis — a person who strongly identified with his vision of the will of God, renounced self-interest and devoted himself to others, to the poor. For a Saint, there is no conflict between self-interest and concern for others, for the welfare of the community or for humanity in general. But most Saints are recognized only in retrospect. Their teachings or the examples of their good works tend to be ignored or scorned during their lifetimes, admired or idealized only long after they are gone. We seem to be able to wrap our minds around the notion of an all-good, i.e. selfless, human being only in the abstract, not here and now. Here and now, we seem to accept, or identify with, devotion to the common good only when it is combined with some form of self-interest. “Self,” of course, can extend to include family, clan, community, nation. Devoting our resources, and making sacrifices, to prevent the devastating effects of climate change requires strong devotion to the welfare of others who, in most cases, are far away or not yet born, on the basis of a complex causal connection between what we do now and the consequences down the road. Strategies to convince people to act in such a way as to prevent climate change seem to require arrangements for their short-term self-interest to coincide with long-term concern for others, as in the notion of a carbon tax. Or, we need someone, perhaps like Pope Francis, who can combine long-term concern for others with short-term self-interest.

The depressive position entails a difficult-to-attain complex-mindedness. It is easier to find, and idealize, our Saints in long-past periods of time, buttressing their goodness with tales of miracles that demonstrate the way God’s will is manifest in their actions. Meanwhile, our skepticism, if not cynicism, is reserved for politicians and others who conduct the affairs of the world. Popes are vulnerable to such skepticism, insofar as the claim to papal infallibility is a recipe for tyranny. A pope is supposed to be both idealistic/spiritual and a politician: on one hand, a bureaucrat-in-chief, a policy maker; on the other, an agent of God’s will. Perhaps we can strive for a depressive position middle way between undue idealization and undue cynicism by acknowledging, in the case of Pope Francis, that he is truly a person of values, in the best spiritual tradition, while remaining a smart, if not shrewd, politician. In this way, spiritually based values can find expression in the day-to-day, rough and tumble world of competing self interests.


[1] The term “paranoid-schizoid” derives from the origin of the concept in the theory of Melanie Klein. Klein was referring to a psychological situation in which people were seen as either good or bad. “Schizoid”, in its British usage refers to the process of splitting (Diagnostically, a schizoid personality was a split personality). “Paranoid” refers to the fact that in paranoid thinking some people are experienced as being all bad.

[2] The term “depressive” in the Kleinian context refers to the fact that when people are seen as both good and bad, one’s destructive impulses toward the bad aspect of a person collides with the love and gratitude one feels toward the good aspect of a person. Realizing that one has hateful, destructive, feelings toward someone one also loves gives rise to depressive feelings, in the sense that one feels badly about oneself for hating a loved person.

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