The pontiff's critique of today's world is incisive.

Photographer: Franco Origlia

Heeding the Pope's Real Warning

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”
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Religious traditions have never before seemed more prone to abuse by demagogues and authoritarians. The depredations of Islamic fundamentalists are all-too-familiar. The rhetoric and actions of Jewish millenarians in Israel, Orthodox Christians in Russia, Hindu fanatics in India, and Protestant fundamentalists in America reveal a broader spectacle of hatred and greed.

Even Buddhism, which teaches a radical suspicion of desire, has turned into a marker of collective identity in Asia's brutal political and economic struggles. In this context, the extraordinary intervention by Pope Francis in the fraught debate on climate change may invite skepticism among those who would blame religion for all the world's evils.

His eloquent 183-page encyclical diagnoses climate change as a "global problem with serious implications," especially for the poor, and offers harsh criticism of politicians, businessmen and media. It asks us to "finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress," and "challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power."

The pope has some advice for "the developed countries," which can compensate for their own damage to the environment "by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development." Yet he is under no illusions that that he'll be heard among the powers-that-be: "Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms."

A cynic is likely to see some schadenfreude in the pope's critique of those who hold power today. After all, the church that he presides over once enjoyed -- and often abused -- a similar power over a large part of Europe. The modern world and its beliefs in reason and material progress were built on the ruins of that church.

Now, after more than two centuries, a chastened and much reformed church speaks out of a different experience: of the modern political, economic and scientific revolution that followed de-Christianization. One country after another in 19th century Europe was secularized, and its hereditary order replaced by a state designed for economic growth and international competition. European missionaries spread their creed of material progress in even old Asian countries -- India, China -- that had long resisted the blandishments of Jesuits.

But this extraordinary success always masked a deeper failure, which Pope Francis bemoans when he speaks of the loss of a "sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded." For secularization hasn't led to the deeper moral unity of humanity hoped for by the 18th-century philosophers of a rising bourgeoisie.

In fact, the antagonisms of class, race, nation and private self-interest became more acute with the abandonment of religion. Imbalances of wealth and power fueled rivalries in an ever-broadening field, erupting in the last century in two world wars. 

The extension of universal suffrage and national self-determination to more people hasn't consoled those left behind in the race for self-aggrandizement. A distorted religious impulse -- the fantasy to eradicate evil and recreate the Kingdom of God on earth -- keeps fueling revolutionary movements, and often gives rise to vicious revolts against bourgeois civilization. The true spiritual ancestors of Islamic State are the Russian nihilists and anarchists of the 19th century.

In many ways, the worldwide mayhem today is an extension of the crisis of post-Christian Europe. Rational self-interest hasn't proven to be a reliable basis for political organization, let alone the moral life of individuals and societies. It has led to rampant venality and anarchy in many countries, where authoritarians are on the rise, promising to allay a widespread sense of loss, fear and confusion.

Pope Francis is in effect attacking the whole development of modern civilization since the 19th century -- one that has destroyed the natural world faster, and caused more violence and dispossession, than any other civilization in history. He can speak freely -- without "masking the problems or concealing their symptoms" -- because he and his office have possessed little temporal power for more than two centuries.  

He stands apart from the pseudo-religious that deploy religion instrumentally as a means to power. He has nothing in common with either the single-minded technocrats who make the world safe for private self-enrichment or the authoritarians who reinforce the overweening power of the state.

It is of course always possible to retreat ostrich-like into daydreams about the universal march of progress and coming triumph of reason. Those who have outgrown such escapist fantasy ought to listen to the pope's sharp analysis of where we are today.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net