The scene: the audience chamber at the Vatican. The papal chair is placed on a carpeted platform. Tall windows give out onto St/. Peter's Square. Enormous 18th-century painting of religious motifs -- ring the walls. A group of American business men is led into the chamber by the papal camarlengo, their sharp steps echoing in the cavernous room. Smiling, Pope Francis rises from his chair to greet them. In turn, they shake hands as the camarlengo introduces them -- captains of industry all. A few, Catholics, presumably, self-consciously kiss the papal ring.
Francis: My children! You have a come a long way and must be fatigued. Please, be seated!
As the others take seats, sitting uneasily at the edges of their seats, Rex Tapper, the spokesman for the group, keeps his feet and addresses the pontiff.
Tapper: Your grace, Thanks for the welcome, but we're busy men and don't have much time to spare.
Francis: Yes, my child.
Tapper: Thanks, your grace. I'll get right to the point. See, it's this encyclical of yours, this "Laudato Si." We think you're making a big mistake, her, your Holiness.
Francis: How so, my son? Is the translation not well done? My American bishops reviewed it and said that its message was clear and easily undertandable.
Tapper: Well, sir, your Holiness, well that's the trouble. It's a bit too clear, if you catch my meaning.
Francis: Go on, my son.
Tapper: Well, you see, we in this room (gestures) to the nervous men behind him) we have a lot riding on the way folks back home will take to that encyclical. Speaking plainly, it's going to be awfully bad for business if every Catholic in America, and some of their lunkhead atheistic enviro-nuts, start looking into every wee little drop of oil or wisp of smoke that gets into the wrong place. Completely by accident, of course.
Francis: Yet the encyclical does not address accidents,
Tapper. It addresses the wholesale deliberate destruction of God's Creation. Surely you have read
Tapper: Well, sir, not as such. But we've heard enough to know what's it's about. And what it's about is just plain bad for business. You can't make an omelette with breaking eggs, you see, and you can't run a paper mill -- like the one that manufactured the paper your encyclical is printed on -- without clear-cutting a few forests and tainting a few rivers!
the encyclical is quite clear that we need not choose between a love of modern comfort and the well-being of our environment. It is a false choice that goes against God's gift of Creation to Mankind. In the beginning, did He not create for Man a garden? And gave it into his care, and made him lord over all that He had created?
Tapper: Well, yes sir, he did. And we are doing just that -- taking God's very gifts of coal and oil and minerals and livestock -- and turning them into useful things that help Mankind -- like cars and warm houses and stores full of material goods.
Francis: This is true, and yet the manner in which these gifts are used leads to ruined waterways and oil-fouled birds and beaches and depletion of fish stocks and rising sea levels. Shouldn't those be calculated into the equation?
Tapper: Maybe so, But that's just the price of doing business. You won;t send us back into the caves, would you? Plenty of clean water and clean air when we lived in caves, you know. And not a lot of fancy buildings and clothes, like the one we are in or the ones your are wearing.
Francis: Ah, Signore Tapper, there is that binary, this-or-that thinking I warned about. We must use our God-given ingenuity to find ways to safeguard our forests and oceans while we make a living.
Tapper: Begging your pardon, Holiness, that's all very nice, but we don't have time to replace every blade of grass that gets disturbed when we bulldoze a mountain top to get the coal God hid under there. And what are the oceans for but as the perfect dumping ground for the waste products of our responsible use of the minerals in the earth? Why, God himself designed the perfect way to conceal the products of industry -- into the deep seas. What else in Gods name are they for? Seems perfect to us! (Here the assembly of business leaders nodded vigorously.)
Francis: My children, I'm afraid that I will not be able to retract even one word of my encyclical. It is based on the truth of science as well as the revealed truth of the sacred Scriptures.
Tapper: Well, your grace, at least you could try to make it your useful...
Francis: Useful? How so?
Tapper: Well, sir, your church's other teachings have been very useful to us, I mean politically. I mean, if you could find a way to tone it down a bit, give us something to work with..
Francis: I am confused by your use of the word "useful,:" my child. How are the church;s traching useful?
Tapper: Well, sir, take your church's stance on abortion. That a
Francis: How sir,
Tapper: Well, sir, between you, me and the lampost, sir, the people are awfully simple-minded. They need clear guidance to make the right decisions.
Tapper: And they do understand the righteousness of your church's stance on the sanctity of human life. We just piggy back on that clear and righteous teaching to move them in the right direction.
Francis: Ah, I see. You link the church's teaching about the sanctity of human life to the pursuit of your business goals, is that right?
Tapper: Just so, Holiness! And a finer marriage of morality and commerce has never been concocted this side of Heaven, if I may borrow a bit of your palaver. And it has made us, the stewards of God's riches, ourselves rich in the process. And that's the righteous reward for our labor, as I believe St. Paul said, somewhere or other
(Here the Pope paused to collect his thoughts.)
Francis:I see that I have much to teach and you have little time to learn! I shall keep you no longer. We shall agree to disagree for now, but I pray that you consider my words and find them as "useful" as you have found our other teachings.
With that, the pope rose from his chair. The camerlengo made a small motion and the audience stood.
Francis: As you depart today, please take a token of our affection. A jar of Trappist jam, created by monks on using sustainable farming methods and a solar-powered fan. I find it quite refreshing in our hot Roman summers!
Cassocked assistants offered trays of jam and fans to the businessmen, but there were few takers. And those thought mostly of the resale value of the papal gifts, and they took an armful.
In the passenger cabin of the private jet, winging back to America after the audience, Tapper and a small group of cronies nursed their neat scotches-on-ice as they lounged in leather seats.
One dared to speak. " You know, we can't let this kind of thing catch on, don't you? If we lose the moral high ground to this eco-nut, we'll never sway our people to our agenda. What's that old saying -- "Who will rid me of this meddlesone priest"?
Tapper swirled his drink, letting the ice cubes clatter against the sides of the glass. "We don't need to get medieval, here. We are modern men,. Americans. We have other ways to deal with men like Francis. Hell, I'll bet not one bishop in ten gives a damn one way or the other about polar bears or melting ice shelves or any of that other claptrap.
He took a careful sip of his whiskey. "We have other ways of dealing with a Francis."
And so over the next months, Tapper's plan took shape. Fox News ignored the encyclical, or discussed it with critics who paired the encyclical's message with the Church's handling of the priest abuse crisis. Their message, "If you can't trust the Church with your kids, you can't trust them with your planet." Rush Limbaugh regularly attacked Francis on his radio show. Ann Coulter's new book, Talking to Popes and Other Leftist Cranks, If You Must" hit the bookstores. Evangelists across American receive Koch-funded brochures spelling out how the papacy's attempt to save the planet and rein in industry was a part of the ancient Catholic conspiracy to take over the world. A few American bishops were enlisted to cast subtle doubt on Francis's orthodoxy, saying that Man's Fall meant that he must suffer. And wasn't drought and pollution merely God's means of bringing about that suffering? Catholic politicians complained that then Pope's pro-planet agenda meant was an abandonment of his pro-life. They argued that pro-life mean pro-
life, and that the planet would heal itself anyway, as it had always done and would always do.
And so was set the great battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. The winning side would not be known for many years.