In 1663, Pope Urban VIII sided with the “scientific consensus” and had the heliocentric observations of Galileo anathemized. That marks, as far as I can tell, the last intervention of the Catholic Church in science. Indeed, Catholic scientists such as Louis Pasteur, the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel, the Catholic priest Georges Lemaître were on the cutting edge of science. That is, until today.
Today the Vatican released the long awaited papal encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” or “Praise Be to You” and while not as bad as expected, it was pretty bad.
Though 90% or so of the encyclical is very orthodox theology taken directly, more or less, from the Catechism, there is a percentage which is nearly pagan in its anthropomorphization of Earth. I found myself expecting to find Gaia appearing periodically in the text.
The Good Part
Pope Francis affirms the dignity of man, the holiness of the traditional family, and the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. He condemns abortion and euthanasia. He dismisses the Paul Ehlich-esque “population bombers” who advocate eradicating large numbers of humans as a way to save the Earth.
My predecessor Benedict XVI likewise proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment”. He observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible”, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence”. Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour. The social environment has also suffered damage. Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless. We have forgotten that “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature”. With paternal concern, Benedict urged us to realize that creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”.
The underlying problem with the encyclical, as I see it, is that it is based on a false premise: that an environmental crisis of global or even regional proportions exists and that crisis is created by and curable by man.
I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”.  All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.
This paragraph sets up a situation where Pope Francis invites dialog but only invites dialog on his terms. You can enter the debate IF you agree there is a crisis and IF you rule out technology as a means of solving the problem. Otherwise you are part of the problem. This is just nuts. It enslaves the outcome to a set of predictions that are highly debatable and rules out any solution other than the one that is pre-ordained. No one is denying that there are areas of the world that have experienced extensive environmental degradation, but this shotgun blast that takes local problems and rolls them into a ball and calls them a global crisis is crazy.
Along with a false premise, the encyclical is based on a very dystopic view of the situation. Quite honestly, it is a view much more in line with Young Adult fiction of the genre that has given us The Hunger Games and Divergent than it is concordance with reality.
Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.
There is no doubt that this does happen but to equate something like Chernobyl, Bhopal, or any random piece of real estate in China with the usual condition is little short of delusional or dishonest.
Zero Sum Mentality
The encyclical is shot through with a zero sum mentality that says anything one person gains is at the expense of another. This is simply false. We see standard of living rising throughout the world as the population increases. I’ll hit some more instances in a while but sometimes this underlying obsession with economic and social levelling has unintentionally hilarious results. For instance:
This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.
I have no problem with helping develop potable water supplies in the Third World. Personally, I’d much rather invest in wells and filters and purification chemicals than condoms, abortions and instruction on safe buggery. But, let’s be serious, me being frugal on water use does not make life easier in Djibouti. There is no doubt that lack of potable water is an issue in parts of the world. For decades The Pentagon has been predicting wars over water rights. But the interesting view that my water use in a (thankfully) temperate and well watered area is germane to a shortage of potable water somewhere else, even in California, makes no sense. It seems to be encouraging ostentatious conservation in the mode of the Pharisees giving alms:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
But this is not a view unique to Pope Francis. It is one infused into the Catholic hierarchy.
95. The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.
This is nonsesnse. It isn’t like the developed nations are sending armies into the Third World and stripping it bare. Where do these bishops think the money comes from to provide aid to poor countries? Why do they think that there hasn’t been a famine caused by natural means in going on seventy years?
Throughout the encyclical you are confronted with a worldview that says there is a finite amount of resources, there is a finite number of jobs, there is a finite number of professions, there is a finite amount of money and every change to that equation, whether by me increasing my personal wealth or a machine replacing a human, results in permanent loss to someone. That is a defeatist mentality and one that has been demonstrated wrong ever since the Luddites wrecked mechanical looms.
Schizophrenia on Man and Gnosticism Revisited
According to the encyclical, man is at the root of every ecological problem. This is stated in many places and when it isn’t stated, it is implied. For instance
32. The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems.
39. The replacement of virgin forest with plantations of trees, usually monocultures, is rarely adequately analyzed. Yet this can seriously compromise a biodiversity which the new species being introduced does not accommodate. Similarly, wetlands converted into cultivated land lose the enormous biodiversity which they formerly hosted. In some coastal areas the disappearance of ecosystems sustained by mangrove swamps is a source of serious concern.
Is this true? No one knows. A lot of people assert that “biodiversity” is an unalloyed good. It may be. But is the evidence direct enough to make bald statements about species curing disease even existing much less being eradicated? Doubtful. On the mammalian side of the equation we have found that animals can coexist rather well with man as they adapt to a new environment (some guy named Darwin hypothesized this a few years back). The “spotted owls” who allegedly needed old growth timber have been found nesting In buildings. Deer plague the DC suburbs. I have a bear raiding my bird feeder. Coyotes are carrying away household pets in Fairfax County, VA and living in The Bronx, NY. Nature is resilient and to insist that all manmade activity is bad for nature is not only horrible science but really bad theology.
This assertion, and others like it in the encyclical, seem to me to carry with them a very schizophrenic view of man as Destroyer of the Earth to the exclusion of man Created in the Image of God. Here and in the climate change section one gets a whiff of both Gnosticism and Eco-religion. There is a special body of knowledge that only the few Elect have access to and the Christian belief of Salvation Through Christ also requires buying into the Salvation Myth of Eco-religion.
Climate Change Modeling as an Article of Faith
Along with the Gaia-ization of the planet, the encyclical endorses climate change both in terms of it happening (it is, and it always has), it defines the change as only going in one direction (up), and it lays the blame squarely on human activity. If faith is belief in absence of evidence, then Pope Francis has made Climate Change, more specifically Anthropogenic Global Warming, an article of faith. We have jettisoned Saint Thomas in favor of Michael Mann.
…A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.
24. Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.
Never mind that there is no evidence whatsoever that warmer temperatures are a) unusual or b) harmful or that c) the science is nowhere close to leaving its infancy. Never mind that the encyclical embraces language more definitive than any scientific paper has thus far. Here Pope Francis simply takes the worst case scenario of the scaremongers and accepts it as true and from there goes on to endorse a series of very temporal and secular policy recommendations:
There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.
Absent from this discussion is the environmental degradation associated with the mining activities needed to acquire the rare earths for solar panels and metals for batteries and the toxic byproducts of their manufacture.
Blade Runner Is Now
44. Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighbourhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.
45. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.
The mind is boggled and the imagination beggared. This is something that one expects to find in a college essay, not in a document that is supposed to be significant to the Faithful.
All Cultures Are Equal
144. A consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a levelling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity. Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes taking shape cannot always fit into frameworks imported from outside; they need to be based in the local culture itself. As life and the world are dynamic realities, so our care for the world must also be flexible and dynamic. Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems. There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture. Nor can the notion of the quality of life be imposed from without, for quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group.
145. Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community.The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems.
146. In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.
In the Philippines, Pope Francis railed against cultural imperialism. There it was in the context of importing a very secular (and very bad) Western idea, homosexual marriage, into a traditional culture. Here Pope Francis goes a step further. He essentially endorses the worst sort of paternalistic, Rousseau-ean, Noble Savage behavior that is associated with Western paternalistic do-gooders. While we can all agree that indigenous peoples should not be unfairly dispossessed or the culture eradicated deliberately, the preservation of those cultures is not necessarily a virtuous goal. Naked, and highly photogenic, tribesmen might be great for Green Tourism of the Amazon but is it in the best interests of those people to deliberately keep them in that condition? Keeping people poor, ignorant, and living by subsistence hunting and farming is not merciful. How about religious conversion? Does preaching the Gospel “show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions”?
The Poor Will Always Be With You If You Oppose The Means To Alleviate Poverty
Many of my Protestant brethren will have a problem with this statement. As a Catholic, I don’t.
93. Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”.Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
This is basically a invocation against the Deadly Sin of greed and in support of the Commandment that forbids covetousness. The devil, however, is in the details. It is in who gets to decide how property gets used to the best use of society. Here I think the longstanding critique of Pope Francis as a man whose view of economics is perpetually centered in oligarchical Argentina and is out of step with most of the developed world is shown to be correct.
128. We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on the economy “through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence”. In other words, “human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs”. To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.
129, In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while realconditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.
These paragraphs are really nothing more than a rejection of progress and, as I said at another point, the endorsement of life as a zero sum game. Rather than seeing a glass half full – a society where people of all social classes are freed from the drudgery of rote labor – he sees a glass half empty – where jobs are being lost to technology and what is left is destitute peasants. He also doesn’t seem to value the quality of labor so much as the quantity. The idea that grubbing a subsistence living from a bit of land is good while abandoning that lifestyle for something more productive is bad strikes one as working to retain a permanent class of poor people living hand to mouth. Capitalism has done more to uplift mankind from poverty than any other force in history. While rampant consumerism might be offensive, and even harmful, viewing the force that creates it as evil is simply not productive or even thoughtful.
Where To From Here
For Protestants, this is no big deal. You can take it or leave it. For Catholics the situation is much more nuanced. The Pope has a unique teaching authority. This encyclical doesn’t make a pronouncement of Faith or Morals so it isn’t Infallible. But we are required to listen and give great weight to what we are told. If find myself squarely with Jeb Bush on this issue. (And there are some calling Jeb a “cafeteria Catholic” over this statement.)
“First of all, Pope Francis is the most extraordinary leader. He speaks with such clarity, speaks so differently. He’s drawing people back in the faith, which as a converted Catholic now of 25 years, I think is really cool,” Bush said.
But Bush disagreed with the sentiment Pope Francis expressed in the document. “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the greater part of the global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases … given off above all because of human activity,” Pope Francis wrote in the encyclical, a papal letter to bishops.
“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush said. “And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issue before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
In the words of Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute
“The draft text articulates a quite traditional Catholic conception of humanity’s place in and relationship to the natural world. Building on the idea of human ecology outlined by Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the draft underscores that unjust manipulation of human ecology – such as the population control measures pushed by international organizations and Western governments – is just as destructive as arbitrary use of the natural environment.”
“A major weakness of the draft text, however, is the superficial-like way it seems to portray the market economy. At times, the text reads as if the market economy and the financial sector are somehow responsible for most of the world’s ills. This is very hard to reconcile with the manner in which economic globalization and economic freedom have helped to lift millions of people out of poverty over the past 30 years. This view of the market is a major blind spot of the draft, but also reflects a long history of the Vatican often ignoring or downplaying the positive developments associated with the spread of global markets, especially with regard to poverty. The brutal reality is that most of the reasons that many countries remain poor is their own bad choices, corruption, and weak institutions – a point the draft text seems very reluctant to acknowledge.”
This encyclical, to the extent that it teaches on our moral duty to be good stewards of the Earth and good neighbors and good Christians, is useful. It provides some food for thought but largely re-plows ground already plowed much better by previous Popes. And did the world described in the encyclical actually exist as a majority case, I would wholeheartedly agree with it. But that isn’t the case.
In 1998, Saint John Paul II issued an encyclical titled Fides et Ratio, Faith and Reason, where he delineated the boundary between boundaries between the two and showed how they are complementary forces. What Pope Francis has done is hitch the wagon of Faith to the race car of the pseudo-science of the day and throw Reason, itself, overboard. In short, if we, through Reason, or even through empirical observation, arrive at the conclusion that the science pimped in this encyclical is wrong we are bad people, we are part of the problem. We are bad even if we think there needs to be more inquiry before radically altering civilization. This is disappointing and sends us back to the era when the Inquisition validated the work of scientists.