It Matters That Pope Francis Skipped Paris for Africa
At the United Nations climate talks in Paris, the face of one high-profile environmentalist was conspicuously missing. Pope Francis, who convened his own climate talks at the Vatican earlier this year, opted to skip Paris and travelled to Africa instead. It’s an important and symbolic decision that highlights the pontiff’s sharply divergent views with the key players in Paris over how to deal with Mother Earth and her inhabitants.
The Holy Father has made no secret of his environmentalist leanings. His very first move as pope was to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment. What followed were countless speeches and references to concern for the earth, culminating in an epic, forty thousand-word treatise on the threats to the environment in his papal encyclical, Laudato Si. There were plenty of dropped jaws when the Pope, white robes flapping against the bright green of the White House lawn, directly referenced “air pollution” and “climate change” while a satisfied President Obama smiled on. Climate change activists the world over rejoiced in their new leader and bestowed on him accolades and honors, among them TIME person of the year.
And yet he hardly represents their movement. The Pope has made one thing clear for anyone who takes the time to read what he actually says: Concern for the environment and population control are completely at odds. Pope Francis has been steadily advancing what the Church calls an integrated ecology, one that does not exclude human beings, most especially the most vulnerable, from concern for the world that they inhabit. “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings,” Francis writes in Laudato Si, and he repeatedly condemns what he has termed a “throwaway culture,” one where people and goods are viewed as equally disposable.
He has explicitly and repeatedly condemned population control, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and the marginalized of the disabled, arguing, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings… if we fail to protect a human embryo…?”
But the Pope has been much more pointed. While in the Philippines, where the birthrate remains high, Pope Francis alluded to a 2012 law that promotes contraception use saying that, “the family all too often needs to be protected against insidious attacks” and condemned “programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred.” In his so-called “climate change encyclical” he denounces the pressure developing nations face when rich nations tie aid to “certain policies of “reproductive health”” which he has called a form of ideological colonialism. He has said that “to blame population growth” is a way of "refusing to face the issues,” and he knocks those who “only propose a reduction in the birthrate” and those who argue that “the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced.”
He stands in sharp contrast with key figures in Paris like President Obama and French President Hollande, who use their administrations to advance goals like condoms and abortion for developing nations, and with leading scientists on the issue like Paul Ehrlich, who called the pope’s environmentalism “raving nonsense” without population control. Population control is not at the center of the Paris talks, to the chagrin and frustration of many, but Pope Francis’ approach to reducing carbon emissions would fall flat were he there.
Pope Francis has warned of the dangers of pinning the blame on developing nations, or slapping them with the penalties of regulations and laws that only increase poverty or paternalistically pushing contraception and pleading with them to procreate less. In Francis’ environmentalism, it is human capital that is most precious, and also the most important key to solving the world’s challenges.
Perhaps that is why he chose to go to Africa while the rest of the world jetted to Paris. Despite dire poverty and persistent polygamy and marriage-less unions in many cases, it is there that families are the most generous, joyful, and stable. Unsurprisingly, it is also where the Church is growing the fastest. In Paris, the churches are empty. In Africa, they overflow. They swell in particular with children. This matters to Pope Francis, who has made it clear that he views the family as a sort of lynchpin to every social challenge, including the environment. He has called the family the “basic cell of society,” where “we first learn how to show love and respect for life” and “respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures.”
And true to Pope Francis’ wish to see a Church re-position to face the margins, the African Church is increasingly playing an important role at the table in discussions about the family. As the recently concluded Synod on the Family revealed, the real tugging took place between Europe and Africa. African Cardinals like Cardinal Turkson of Ghana and Cardinal Sarah of Guinea emerged as vocal opponents to clamors for change to the Church’s longstanding teachings on marriage and the family. They gave the Synod a forward-feeling stance, despite debates from the past resurrected by European cardinals.
And so it matters that Pope Francis skipped Paris for Africa. He skipped an elitist convention to visit the part of the world driving population growth and modeling the concept of strong and vibrant families – the place where real hope and change are born – to the world. Pope Francis’ environmentalist groupies should take note.