In advance of Pope Francis’s green encyclical, forthcoming this summer, the Vatican on Tuesday will host a summit titled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development.” Political conservatives reading that can be expected to groan a little. “Climate change” and “sustainable development” are mostly the other side’s vocabulary.
Francis’s critics leap to conclusions when they see “Pope Francis” and “the environment” in the same sentence, but forgive them. With his broad pronouncements against “savage capitalism,” he has, intentionally or not, already cast himself as an economic populist (“money is the devil’s dung”), and his image has been breezily conscripted by popular media to serve as a mascot for social liberalism. The LGBT magazine The Advocate named him “Person of the Year 2013,” and it would be easy to multiply illustrations. In fairness to popular media, though, it should be acknowledged that he has given them material to work with.
His tone enchants the Left and alarms the Right. Why should wary conservatives dreading his fleshed-out pronouncement on the environment expect it to be any different? His preaching and commentary where they touch on secular public affairs are widely perceived to skew in one direction on the political compass.
Among Catholics qua Catholics, of course, the fundamental criticism of Francis runs deeper. Any bias he might have toward the political Left is incidental to their larger concern that he is destabilizing the Church by sowing confusion and doubt about Catholic teaching on faith and morals. Some who are conservative in their religion might even welcome a papal affirmation that God’s creation is awesome and that we should be better stewards of our natural environment. They will have a hard time, however, hearing themselves think such a thought over the drumbeat of the Left’s gloating and the Right’s decrying that the mere fact of an encyclical on environmental issues confirms Francis as a representative of the full-spectrum liberal Left, as if papal engagement with environmentalism were something new.
“The Green Pope,” Newsweek called Benedict XVI, who “made being green a central part of his teachings and policy-making.” In 2008, the Vatican installed solar panels on the Paul VI Audience Hall, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 252 tons a year and reinforcing the Holy See’s distinction as the first carbon-neutral state. In 2007, it sponsored the planting of a Hungarian forest to offset its modest carbon emissions. In April of that year, the second of Benedict’s pontificate, he blessed a precursor to tomorrow’s green summit. The Guardian characterized the Vatican-sponsored climate-change conference as a harmonious affair, citing observers who said that Rome, “no longer split,” had settled on the position that the environment had priority over economic development.
Or did the event rather reflect “the rifts and tensions still dividing the global debate on the causes of and remedies for drastic climatic shifts,” as the Catholic News Service reported? In a message to the participants, Benedict counseled moderation:
It is important for assessments . . . to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.
Environmental protection and economic well-being — embracing both outcomes simultaneously is like putting your arms around two children who are punching each other. Bravo to Benedict for avoiding the temptation to favor one over the other.
Environmental protection and economic well-being — embracing both simultaneously is like putting your arms around two children who are punching each other.
Paul Haffner, a theology professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University and author of Towards a Theology of the Environment, looks forward to the encyclical as an “urgently needed” correction to “many philosophical and theological errors that have crept into the environmental movement.” He predicts that the document will position “the human person as central.” If it does, it will find itself sharing significant common ground with “ecomodernism,” a promising new movement that the New York Times describes as “a call to look past sustainable development.” Ecomodernist leaders, reputable scholars whose bios are replete with references to elite universities and think tanks, accept “the Anthropocene Age, the Age of Humans,” and prescribe a policy direction that plainly conflicts with some core assumptions long cherished by the established environmental movement.
Vatican Radio says that Francis intends to emphasize “‘human ecology,’ a phrase used by Pope Benedict to describe not only how people must defend and respect nature but how the nature of the person — masculine and feminine as created by God — must also be defended.” That would be an ambitious undertaking, joining a traditional message about gender to a theme, the environment, that has been largely appropriated by the Left. Could Francis pull it off?
His signature denunciation of the consumerist “throwaway culture” of the rich may thrill the environmental Left, but in theory it should appeal also to crunchy conservatives and to uncounted Catholics who feel but can’t explain what up to now only a few, writing mostly for themselves, have tried to spell out: that Catholicism can never be quite at home with free-market capitalism or, in the words of Cardinal Peter Turkson, the primary contributor to the encyclical, with “neo-liberal thinking.” Political conservatives tend to underestimate both the conservative pedigree of that current of thought and, more specifically, the degree to which it is melded with conservative Catholic teaching on family, sexual complementarity, and sexual morality.
Leave it to the pope to marry environmentalism and social conservatism and, in the process, to shed light on both. But has Francis in fact picked up and advanced the argument introduced by his predecessor? The encyclical is with translators. We’ll find out in a month or two.
— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review.