Pope Francis, the A/C and a Cup of Coffee

Author: John O'Callaghan '96Ph.D.

The pope turns off his air conditioner at night. I know, because for some years now I have had the honor of staying in the Domus Sanctae Marthae inside Vatican City while attending a meeting in June. Every evening around 10, without fail, the air conditioners turn off until 5 a.m. This practice existed under Benedict and remains under Francis, who now lives on the building’s second floor.

Equally without fail, I awaken every morning at 3 in an agony of Roman heat, humidity, and perspiration to toss and turn for two hours awaiting the blessed relief of the buzz and breeze of the resurrected air conditioning.

This year I happened to be there when the pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ came out. It contains a passage in which Pope Francis describes technology’s dominance in our lives using the example of the ubiquity of air conditioning. I read that passage in my room on the fourth floor around 9:45 p.m. and chuckled loudly. The agony and irony of it all, sitting two floors above the Holy Father, anticipating that moment 15 minutes hence when the warmth and humidity would be driven by molecular kinetic energy from his floor to mine for seven hours — the inexorable necessity of Brother Physics and Sister Heat.

The next day, my sense of irony turned to embarrassment as I read the reactions of many American economic conservatives, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. It was hard to believe we had read the same document. I was not so rude as to criticize directly my fellow Americans while abroad. But I did respond to one comment — “It doesn’t matter; if we even mention the word ‘economy’ we know exactly what to expect from the Americans” — by registering that I thought the encyclical outstanding.

Back in the September heat and humidity at Notre Dame, I find myself shivering inside my office in a certified 100 percent “green” building that doesn’t allow me to turn the air conditioning down, much less off. I can’t help but think most of that American commentary I read in Rome missed Pope Francis’ point.

Laudato Si’ was occasioned by questions about the interrelationship of human technology and economy to the global climate. Accepting the scientific consensus that human beings are having an accelerating effect upon climate change, the pope expresses concern with what he calls a “throwaway culture” that increasingly he charges seems to be making out of “our common home” “an immense pile of filth.” He expresses particular concern about the effects this cultural attitude of consumption and waste will have upon the poor, magnifying his point by relating how our throwaway culture is reflected most starkly and tragically in a culture of abortion and euthanasia, where even human beings seem to be objects to be thrown away.

My father once said to me that if I was ever surprised by something the pope wrote, he would have failed to raise me a Catholic. After reading the encyclical, I’ve still not been surprised. And yet the critics seemed surprised that the pope would, as they saw it, waste his authority criticizing the wasteful consumerist way of life so evident around us. Often their remarks latched onto any scientific skepticism or instance of scientific fraud, no matter how obscure, to undermine the idea that climate change is really happening or is being seriously affected by human wastage.

While the critics often claimed the pope is anti-science and anti-technology, they failed to see the irony of their own scientific skepticism. Science: Amazing and good if it gives us iPhone and Uber. Science: Fraudulent and bad when it warns us about climate change and environmental degradation.

The pope is not anti-capitalist, although he is critical of capitalist excess he thinks is greedy and inhumane. The pope is not anti-science. And the pope is not anti-technology. However, he is anti-technocratic.

It is the poor who suffer most in this world when God is for all practical purposes absent from our daily consuming lives; the poor who live in and around the “piles of filth” of this world; the poor who will suffer most the devastation of climate change, unable to afford anything better to protect them like the rest of us.

There is a great difference in the words “technological” and “technocratic.” The origin of the first is from ancient Greek; the second was coined at the beginning of the 20th century. They both have the same initial part from Greek: the word techne for skill, craft or workmanship. But the words end differently. The end of “technological” comes from the Greek word logos, which means reason, among other things. Christians will recall that Christ is identified with the Logos in the opening passages of the Gospel of John. Pope Benedict devoted his papacy to reminding us that that Logos is at the heart of reality. Francis praises technology as integral to our lives, as a tool that we employ to creatively advance human flourishing.

But the end of “technocratic” comes from the Greek word for “rule,” as in “We are ruled by a king.” What Francis criticizes is technocracy, that is, a culture that allows itself to be ruled by technology and technocrats, effectively displacing the rule of God as creator and redeemer of His creation. We are ruled by technique rather than by the Logos, that is, by the reason at the heart of reality.

Consider a technocratic reality that hits close to home in my own life — the coffee pod, a technological achievement if ever there was one. It provides coffee drinkers with convenience and some people with jobs that never existed before. And yet the leading manufacturer of those pods produced 9 billion of them in 2014. Coffee pods are not recyclable and not biodegradable, I learned in The Atlantic, which also informs me that the number discarded last year would circle the globe 12 times.

Nine billion: That’s a little over one pod for every man, woman and child on the planet. And yet an extraordinarily small proportion of the planet’s population enjoys the convenience of them. The pod belongs to you and me until we use them up and throw them away; then they belong to the world, especially to the poor, forever. That reality might help us appreciate in some small way the pope’s point that in many other ways we are making of “our common home” a “pile of filth.”

In my local grocery store you can buy a pound of coffee for around $8, coffee that can be put into any number of coffee makers that last for years. I think my sister still has my parents’ Chemex from 40 years ago. The pod coffee, however, prices out at approximately $40 a pound. That’s a 400 percent increase in the cost of coffee and, given their ubiquity in the workplace and many American homes, an extraordinary shift of economic value from consumers to producers.

Profit is a good thing, if it serves and is not served. But how much of that shift in value goes to the workers who produce the pods? To the men and women who work in the coffee fields, bringing coffee to our offices and tables? Is their lot in life improved by that 400 percent increase in cost in a sufficient manner to “balance” the noose of pods winding its way around the globe? And whose homes stand next to the landfills containing all those empty pods? Does it matter?

Although the single-brew coffee pod is not the pope’s example, (they still make espresso in the Vatican, Deo gratias), his point in Laudato Si’ is that whether this sort of development is a good thing or a bad thing will not be settled simply by economic analyses and technocratic decision-making. Instead, the question can only be answered by placing it within a larger understanding of the world around us and ourselves in it as creatures of God. Francis’ point isn’t to blame captains of industry and marketing so much as to examine ourselves, those of us who enjoy the convenience and social conformity of having what everyone else has without noticing the consequences.

The pope reminds us that when we ignore the fact that the world is created, and live our lives consciously or unconsciously as if in a technocracy, we treat the world as if it belongs to us and not to God. We live as if God does not matter. As if He were dead. And it is the poor, the pope argues, who suffer most in this world when God is for all practical purposes absent from our daily consuming lives; the poor who live in and around the “piles of filth” of this world; the poor who will suffer most the devastation of climate change, unable to afford anything better to protect them like the rest of us.

This brings us to the deeper point of the encyclical — the distinction between God the creator and the world with us in it as His creatures. The discussion of climate and economy is the occasion for raising this deeper issue for us, as if climate change is the station where we get on the train. But where the train is going you understand only at the end of the voyage. As Laudato Si’develops with increasing focus and depth, one realizes how deeply traditional and evangelical this pope is.

The encyclical is an occasion for Christian memory, for those Christians who want to remember their creator and redeemer. For those who do not share our faith it is an occasion of evangelical proclamation. It reminds all of us that everything good we encounter in this world belongs to God because He created it — the trees, the rivers, the animals, our fellow human beings. How would our lives change if we truly thought of ourselves as stewards of what belongs to God and not masters of it?

Yes, this tree is given to me for my use, and yet it is God’s tree. Yes, this water is given to me for my use, and yet it is God’s water. Yes, these animals are given to me for my use. And yet they are God’s animals. In the beginning God created them all, and said of all of them that they are good, even before He created humankind very good.

I cannot do with these things whatever I want, for they are not mine. Or, if they belong to me, it is only because they first belong to God who has given them to me. But a gift is not an economic exchange of value. It is an expression of love. One has a responsibility to respect a gift one has been given, because one has a responsibility to the giver, who loved so much as to give it in the first place.

How differently might we see ourselves and live out our lives if we understand that we do not fundamentally belong to ourselves but to Another? When we turn to our fellow human beings, who are not given to us for our use, but for our friendship, how will we look at the poor if we see that they belong to God? What will we be called to do when we see the trash and filth we have discarded growing around them? Most strikingly, how will a mother or father contemplating an abortion look at their unborn child if they see him or her as belonging to God and not to them? What will they do with this gift? Throw it away?

The kind of belonging involved here isn’t belonging in the sense of property. It is the kind of belonging that one thinks of when one speaks of belonging to a family. Or the way lovers speak of belonging to each other and no longer simply to themselves.

It is here that the pope’s writing is deeply scriptural and distinctly traditional. Should we be surprised? Not if we think of the saints and predecessors Pope Francis mentions throughout the encyclical: St. Paul, St. Basil, St. Benedict, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis, St. Bonaventure and St. John of the Cross, among others. These are all extraordinary figures who emphasized the fundamental relation of the world to God as created and redeemed by Him, a relationship that should change everything we think about the world and ourselves within it. The teaching of Laudato Si’ simply continues the teaching of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, the two figures the pope cites most often. How soon we forget that people were beginning to call Benedict, occasionally with some derision, “the green pope.”

Curiously, Pope Francis does not mention St. Augustine. But the vision is St. Augustine’s through and through. St. Augustine teaches us that the life of charity, caritas, consists in loving God and loving one’s neighbor in God. To love one’s neighbor in God is to see him as God sees him, rather than as we would see him apart from God. Similarly one can speak of seeing the world as God sees it, rather than as we would see it apart from God. When we do this “loving in God,” this seeing in God, we understand why we cannot treat the world and one another as if it and they were simply disposable.

This is the evangelical point of Laudato Si’. Francis has put divine mercy at the heart of his papacy, choosing it for his motto. What he has done with this encyclical is remind us that it is divine mercy itself to belong to God, to have been created by and ultimately for God. And it is the divine mercy of the Incarnation that touches not only humanity, but the entirety of the created order. So Francis’ extraordinary meditation on Christ’s presence in the physical world through the sacraments is beautiful. But is it surprising?

The concern for climate change that begins this encyclical is simply the opening of a grand meditation on the love of God for us, and what that love requires of us in response. Among all the saints Pope Francis brings to our attention in the encyclical, perhaps the single most important one for each of us is St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. If, among 9 billion coffee pods a year, we despair of achieving global solutions that the pope nonetheless still encourages us to pursue, he commends to us the “little way” of St. Therese. What is within my own small power? What small thing can I achieve that the world for all its power cannot?

Perhaps as Francis urges us, we can say grace before meals as most Catholics do, but also a prayer of thanksgiving after meals, and make sure to ask God to watch over the poor who may not have enough to eat. Perhaps living in a country with the cleanest water in the world, we can get water from our taps and not the plastic bottles that will end up in yet another “trash heap.”

Perhaps we can even turn down our air conditioning a degree or two. That is, if we do not have the courage of the pope just to turn it off.

John O’Callaghan is an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.