An authentic pope should be a scary one. Jesus scared the dickens out of people (it cost him his life). Is Pope Francis truly scary? One might think so from the reaction of some guardians of orthodoxy, men like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who thinks he must threaten the pope with schism to protect the sanctity of marriage, since “this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.” But ecclesiastical nitpickers have no armies of similar thinkers to summon. This is not even medium scary.
Now, however, something is looming that has billionaires shaking in their boots, and when Catholic billionaires shake, Catholic bishops get sympathetic shudders. These are the men who build their churches, hospitals, schools, and libraries. Catholic lore has made winning over such Money Men the mark of the true church leader—the Bing Crosby priest crooning dollars out of a cranky donor in Going My Way, or the J. F. Powers priest putting up with a wealthy boor to get a golf course for his retreat house.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan was recently reminded of these facts of churchly life by Kenneth Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot. The cardinal is working to restore St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, at a cost of $175 million. Langone asked why he and his fellow benefactors should raise such money when the pope is denouncing “the idolatry of money.” He said the pope’s criticism will make his fellow donors “incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.”
But this, too, was a minor threat. Langone was simply threatening to withhold money. Now, as the pope prepares a major encyclical on climate change, to be released this summer, the billionaires are spending a great deal of their money in a direct assault on him. They are calling in their chits, their kept scientists, their rigged conferences, their sycophantic beneficiaries, their bought publicists to discredit words of the pope that have not even been issued: “He would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations’ unscientific agenda on the climate,” they say. They do not know exactly what the pope is going to say in his forthcoming encyclical on preserving God’s creation, but they know what he will not say. He will not deny that the poor suffer from actions that despoil the earth. Everything he has said and done so far shows that Francis always stands for the poor.
Those who profit from what harms the earth have to keep the poor out of sight. They have trouble enough fighting off the scientific, economic, and political arguments against bastioned privilege. Bringing basic morality to the fore could be fatal to them. That is why they are mounting such a public pre-emptive strike against the encyclical before it even appears. They must not only discredit the pope’s words (whatever they turn out to be), they must block them, ridicule them, destroy them. The measure of their fear is demonstrated by an article in First Things, the Catholic journal that defended the donations to bishops of the pederast religious founder Marcial Maciel. The First Things writer Maureen Mullarkey calls the pope “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist,” and continues: “Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.”
The editor of First Things later apologized for the uncivil tone of this piece—but he ran the piece, which is the real act of incivility. These people are really, really scared. When they calm down enough to make some kind of argument, they fall back on their mantra of recent years, claiming nobody really knows anything for sure about the state of the earth. “I’m not a scientist,” they say. Such professed ignorance would make honest people try to learn from the scientists what they do not know. Instead, the implication is that “If I don’t know, nobody can know; it is arrogant to pretend anyone else can know what I don’t know.”
They are now adapting this argument to fit the pope. He is not a scientist, we are assured, so he cannot say anything on scientific matters. Actually, this pope knows more about scientific method than people realize. He spent three years as a young man doing experiments in a chemistry laboratory under a very strict supervisor, Esther Balestrino de Careaga.
But this is beside the point. The real issue here is not science vs. ignorance, or the UN vs. xenophobia, or my 97 percent of experts against your 3 percent. It is a case of the immensely rich few against the many deprived poor. The few are getting much of their wealth from interlocking interests that despoil the earth. The fact that the poor get poorer in this process is easily dismissed, denied, or derided. The poor have no voice. Till now. If the pope were not a plausible voice for the poor, his opponents would not be running so scared. Their fear is a testimony to him.