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Papacy Comes Down to Earth on Climate Change

It turns out that two of the world's biggest proponents of smart growth are Catholic. One of them is California Governor Jerry Brown, who once studied to be a Jesuit priest and, more recently, has promoted earthly initiatives like high-speed rail, the adoption of vehicle miles traveled metrics, and the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals in the western hemisphere. 

The other is the Pope. 

Today the Vatican released Pope Francis' long-awaited encyclical concerning the environment. Drafted a month ago, the encyclical is essentially the Vatican's version of a white paper. It is meant to influence pretty much everyone who falls under Catholicism's sway, but it's bound to gain fans among secular policymakers. 

While the world may have expected airy proclamations about preserving God's creation and such, the Pope has recommendations for revitalizing Sodom and Gomorrah just as he does for preserving Eden. Parts of the encyclical read like Jane Jacobs, starting with the chapter heading, "Ecology of Daily Life." The Pope observes and recommends: 

  • In our rooms, our homes, our workplaces and neighbourhoods, we use our environment as a way of expressing our identity. We make every effort to adapt to our environment, but when it is disorderly, chaotic or saturated with noise and ugliness, such overstimulation makes it difficult to find ourselves integrated and happy.
  • The feeling of asphyxiation brought on by densely populated residential areas is countered if close and warm relationships develop, if communities are created, if the limitations of the environment are compensated for in the interior of each person who feels held within a network of solidarity and belonging. In this way, any place can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life.
  • This experience of a communitarian salvation often generates creative ideas for the improvement of a building or a neighbourhood
  • Those who design buildings, neighbourhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people's thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting....people's quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance. Here too, we see how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.
  • There is also a need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of "feeling at home" within a city which includes us and brings us together.
  • Creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighbourhoods into a welcoming city
  • Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. 

(Note to Pope Francis: Don Shoup is retiring from UCLA. Maybe his next gig can be as Vatican advisor Pontiff of Parking? Bishop of Bicycling?)

These statements are both obvious and breathtaking. They are obvious because they echo the goals that many planners have been pursuing for years. They  are breathtaking for their eloquence and, even if for agnostics, for the enormity of the source from which they emanate. They also emphasize social justice more deeply than even the most environmentally conscious planners ever do. And, really, who ever thought a pope would call out urban planning by name? If Pope Francis is ever to be canonized, he has his first miracle. 

Pope Francis himself is, of course, an city guy. He's from Buenos Aires, a city full of delights and troubles. And, really, the Papacy itself is urban. Angels and Demons would have been much less interesting, if not less grating, had it not been set in the extraordinary warren of history and humanity that is central Rome. Modern Rome is what it is in part because of the presence of the Vatican. 

In fact, no one has used the world's urban network as cannily as the Catholic Church has. The hierarchy of cathedrals, churches, cardinals, and bishops mirrors the world's network of cities. The Church anticipated Saskia Sassen's theories on global cities by a few hundred years. It only stands to reason that the Pope would appreciate the power, and problems, of cities. 

The Catholic Church has done a few amazing things for cities. Catholic cathedrals are some of humanity's most exhilarating works. The plazas in front of them are some of the world's great public spaces. (Subjugation of much of the "public" in many of those places, including in mission-era California, is another matter.) It's about time the Church gave the world something a little less imperialistic. 

This is of course a surprising announcement for a historically conservative institution (to say the least), and it's naturally infuriating for members of the religious right, who now find themselves disavowing the figure who is, supposedly, God's messenger on earth. Unfortunately, this encyclical will probably just reinforce existing attitudes. Progressives will hail it, and ignorant, self-serving climate deniers will reject it. Maybe, though, there are folks on the margins those who are extraordinarily devout or who were extraordinarily ambivalent and perhaps in out of the way places, including those in the developing world, who will be moved. 

For everyone else it's a welcome, and even obvious, policy. That includes Gov. Brown, former Gov. Schwarzenegger, and the countless other supporters who have put California's environmental policies. Imperfect and incomplete as those policies may be (the Pope is not a fan of cap-and-trade), they put California at the forefront of this essential crusade. Having quit the seminary, Gov. Brown may have missed his chance to become Pope. But he's clearly a good Catholic. 

May we all be so devoted to the salvation of our state and our world.