Out of the Frying Pan and into the Friar

Culture, Economy, Media, Religion, Science, The Life of the Mind


I’ve always had a soft spot for Catholicism, as I do for all things Roman. I love its unrepentant, if cheerfully unacknowledged, paganism; I like that it manages to be both particular and ecumenical, with a vast canonical universe, unlike so much dour Protestantism, which has only the Bible and manages to treat all of the Book’s magnificent poetry like an instruction diagram for the assembly of a confusing piece of Scandinavian furniture. I like its camp and its kitsch. And like a lot of folks these days, I like this Pope. Seems like a decent fellow, although the obsequious puffery of his transcendent moral authority by non-Catholic liberal types every time he says anything to broadly accords with their political preferences strikes me as supremely odd—not that there’s anything wrong with proposing a useful political alliance, but rather because it so frequently and quickly shades into an argument from authority.

Here admitted: I don’t like the phrase “climate change,” not because I dispute the general underlying truth and reality to which it refers, but because the phrase itself is so distressingly market-tested, so anodyne, so wooly and amoral and abstract. It hardly inspires a rush to the barricades, and it reeks of the sort of ineffectual political non-postures that gave us, for example, the huge loser designation “pro-choice”—a place, ironically, where the Pope’s biological credentials seem suddenly less burnishable to a lot of the same people pleased with his stance on ecology. And, apropos this very item, the Pope’s insistence that population growth and population control are ecologically insignificant compared to the “consumerism” of wealthy nations is faintly incredible. Though he rightly criticizes the blind faith in technological fixes, the crackpot conviction that we can invent our way out of the problem via electric cars or whatever, a future as mere facsimile of the present, only, uh, “sustainable,” one hardly needs to be a vulgar Malthusian to understand that the ongoing addition of billions and billions more humans—and the attendant need to get them water and food and shelter and clothing—is a large problem in our larger complex of problems. In other words, there is a deep contradiction at the heart of Francis’s correct criticism of the notion of salvation via technological innovation: he too, in his way, is praying for an electric car. What is lacking is an act of really radical imagination, which would suggest that a harmonious and truly sustainable human society would be not simply different, but unrecognizable—unrecognizable in its conduct, yes, but also and more importantly in its scale.

None of this is really meant to single Francis out for criticism. I really do like the guy, admire much of what he says, and as regards his Franciscan ideas about a human ecology, I sympathize and at least partially agree. Compared to the national leadership of our larger and more influential countries, and certainly compared to the greenwashing corporate sector, the Pope’s statements are worthy of much of the praise that they’ve garnered. But, to use a business metaphor I’m otherwise fond of mocking, the idea that they’ve disrupted anything is incorrect. It’s just regular competition in an existing space.

6 thoughts on “Out of the Frying Pan and into the Friar

  1. Having witnessed protestant exesjesus in action—quite by happenstance, mind you—I’ll have you know there is plenty of burnishable furniture to be had as a result, but y’ know…

    I do believe you may have drafted a workable slogan for the next hopeful:
    “We can invent our way out of the problem via electric cars or whatever!” —Also Ran 2016

    As a man who was the lad who managed to dodge Confirmation his last four years at Catholic primary school, I shade the assertion correction into one from authority: Bergoglio is a docent fellow.

  2. what you effing said. Malthus, the moral anus, was essentially correct on population and carried Darwin to the threshold of natural selection (throw some rice for the couple!). So, unless one rejects the big Charles, Pope’s statement was non sequitur. Pope should know what everyone should know. He’s smart enough, but talking catholic book, I’d say. I also like the guy, except for that major blunder.

  3. Given that this is the coordination problem to end all coordination problems, and huge numbers of people have interests on both sides up to and including life-or-death, I’d say we will either invent our way out of it or endure the inevitable, dramatic population adjustment. (My money’s on the former, just by induction.)

    Or it’ll all turn out to be a bunch of hooey. I still hold out some hope on that front. Scientific consensus has been wrong before.

  4. “He saw himself as a son of the Catholic Church, which he did not regard as simply one of several Christian confessions, but as the great collecting tank of all religions, as the heiress of all paganism, as the still living original religion. That the Church after Vatican II no longer corresponded to this ideal, was more painfully aware to him than to anyone. And so, that much more easily did he decide to emigrate from the present, the analysis of which, of course, helped him to formulate his fragments of an “eternal anthropology” against it.” -Martin Mosenbach, regarding Nicolás Gómez Dávila

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