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WASHINGTON — “He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable is the bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

At the beginning of his encyclical on climate change that will shake up environmental politics around the world, this is how Pope Francis describes St. Francis of Assisi, the saint who inspired the name he chose.

It’s worth focusing first on the pope’s tribute to the holy man who revered animals and all of nature. St. Francis’ worldview, the pope insisted, should not be “written off as naive romanticism.” His paean to the saint placed his declaration in a spiritual context even if its content was uncompromising.

The pope says flatly that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” that “things are now reaching a breaking point,” and that greenhouse gases are “released mainly as a result of human activity.” This can only mean that humanity “is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption.”

There is no ambiguity in what the pope is saying, which is why the critics will descend upon him. Even before Thursday’s formal release of the document (and Monday’s leaked draft), they accused him of meddling in political and scientific questions that are beyond his purview.

This critique is coming especially from conservatives who have welcomed the intervention of the Catholic Church on some political issues but not others, and particularly not this one. Yet progressives and conservatives alike should attend to what motivates Pope Francis here — not the usual left-right politics but a theological concern for our obligation to care for our “common home,” a skepticism of a “throwaway culture,” and an insistence that a belief in God means that human beings cannot put themselves at the center of the universe.

“We are not God,” the pope declares, and should not act as if we are “usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample His creation underfoot.” Believers who disagree with the pope will have to grapple with his religious understanding and not simply dismiss his embrace of a thoroughly orthodox view that places the spiritual and the ethical ahead of the material.

All of the pope’s trademark qualms about modern capitalism and his rejection of “a magical conception of the market” are sounded here, and there is a biting comment aimed at those who use the word “freedom” to offer blanket defenses of a system that leaves many behind: “To claim economic freedom,” he writes, “while real conditions bar many people from real access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.”

Yet any who claim that Francis is ignoring the Catholic past and inventing radical new doctrines will have to reckon with the care he takes in paying homage to his predecessors, particularly Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. He cites them over and over on the limits of markets and the urgency of environmental stewardship. “Laudato Si (Praised Be)” is thus thoroughly consistent with over a century of modern Catholic social teaching, and if it breaks new ground, it does so within the context of a long tradition — going back to St. Francis himself.

Pope Francis poses a challenge to those of us in the wealthy nations, and he speaks specifically about how “opinion makers, communications media, and centres of power are far removed from the poor.” Ouch! He demands payment of an “ecological debt” between “north and south.” Again and again, he returns to the twin ideas that the world’s poor face the largest threat from climate change and that the world’s rich have a special obligation to deal with it. The pope who immersed himself in the most marginalized neighborhoods of Buenos Aires has not forgotten where he came from.

But if Francis is making himself the Green Pope, it’s not just because he has a social agenda. Like his favorite saint, he believes in the transformative power of simplicity and compassion. “We must,” he writes, “regain the conviction that we need one other, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.” This is precisely where the personal and the political must meet.


E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne. 

File photo: Pope Francis waves to the crowd during his general audience at St Peter’s square on December 17, 2014 at the Vatican (AFP Photo/Alberto Pizzoli)

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

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