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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Pontiff vs. the President
distributed 5/26/17 - ©2017

How can I possibly be silent about this week's celebrity face-off? Donald Trump goes to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. How can I not take sides?

One of them is the President of my country -- and I don't think I've written anything positive about him or his policies since he was elected almost seven months ago.

The other one is a global leader of the Christian faith -- and on many occasions I've written and spoken with deep appreciation about his personal virtues and his theological positions. His "environmental" encyclical, Laudato Si', is a powerful expression of the eco-justice principles that are at the heart of my ministry.

Hmmmm. Who would I be cheering for in this clash of values and personalities?

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The fact that the two men are such polar opposites is what made the Vatican meeting so interesting. It had something of the same feel as going to NASCAR races -- the actual race is pretty boring, but there is the potential for a dramatic crash.

Would either of these two let loose with a shocking and unscripted public quip? There was that possibility. As Politico noted, "Both are attractive to their respective fan bases because they can cut through the carefully managed veneer of public office. Their tendency to go off script and 'tell it like it is' has endeared them to their constituents -- if not each other."

But, no. Both men behaved, so the pundits had to resort to analysis of body language and the gifts that each presented to the other.

The overwhelming consensus is that -- in the mutual exchange of books -- Francis scored the most points. The Pope gave the President three of his own books, including Laudato Si'. The 2015 encyclical is a systematic rebuttal of almost everything that President Trump stands for.

The dig at the President was not subtle, and the press certainly didn't miss the message. Lots of the news reports pointed out the significance of giving what has been called "the climate change encyclical" to the world's most visible climate change denier.

To Mr. Trump's credit, he graciously accepted the three books, and said, "Well, I'll be reading them."

That promise from the President did make me think of one of the reviews when Laudato Si' was first published. One commentator appreciated that the language of the document was not overly complex or academic. "If you can read a newspaper, you can read the encyclical." Other folk responded to that comment, though. There are few unfamiliar words in the Pope's letter that would baffle an ordinary reading, but the message is challenging to absorb, even for those who are already on-board with the ideas.

I have serious doubts about whether Mr. Trump will make it through Laudato Si'. If he doesn't understand the message, it will be boring reading. If he does make sense of the Pope's call to deal with climate change, other eco-justice crisis, and the economic system that exploits nature and people, then he's likely to be too angry to make it to the end.

Newsweek reporter Ryan Bort made a similar point in snarkier terms. (I did check. This is presented as a news report, not an opinion column.)

The chance that Trump, a climate change denier whose recent budget proposal slashes funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, would actually read a text on the issue that does not feature easy-to-digest bullet points or Trump's own name is very, very slim. Giving Trump such a letter is about as pointless as if Trump were to give the pope a DVD box set of Celebrity Apprentice.

I do have to give reporter Bort a lot of credit, because it looks like he has read Laudato Si' and made sense of it. Unlike so many other reports this week that use the short-hand of "the climate change encyclical," Bort quotes extensively from the introduction to the encyclical, and then says,

What follows are six chapters covering all aspects of the religiosity of preserving the environment. Here are some choice takeaways, all of which Trump would do well to heed as he charts a course for America's role in dealing with climate change.

The quotes in those choice takeaways -- did he offer them as easy-to-digest bullet points? -- really do a great job of catching the spirit of the encyclical.

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OK -- I'm pretty biased in all of this. I do find it very interesting, though, and quite hopeful, that virtually every news report that I've seen about the Francis-Trump meeting leans toward the same analysis.

This clearly was not seen as a meeting between two ordinary political leaders out to maintain their nation's vested interests. And the Pope was widely seen as the one who brought humility, responsible ethics and a global, intergenerational perspective on world events. Pretty much every report had some sense that, when you put these two men side-by-side, the President isn't going to look very good.

In my review of the week's news -- fairly widespread, but not comprehensive -- I found only two stories that took a negative approach to the Pope.

One columnist with the Miami Herald fully supported the Pope's judgment toward Trump, but didn't think that Francis was being consistent. Referring to the papal visit to Cuba and his meeting with the Castro brothers, he wrote, " If only Pope Francis treated dictators with the disdain he showed for President Trump."

Of all the articles, only the Financial Post came out clearly on the President's side, with a ringing endorsement of free markets
. "Only rising incomes allow countries to prioritize improved environmental protection, health care, education and social welfare. And that wealth is only created through free markets." (Perhaps some other day I'll take on that belief system.)

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The political scene in the United States recently has been chaotic. Policies have taken a hard swing to the political right. Laws and values close to my heart have been under attack.

I am encouraged, looking back on this brief meeting at the Vatican, to see a general pattern of good will toward the Pope and his eco-justice views. The press coverage, domestically and internationally, helps me remember that the whole world has not gone completely mad.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for speaking to the world when you presented your gifts.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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