Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), continues this pope’s tactical tour de force of disarming the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional leftist enemies and takes it a step farther, by laying the foundation of alliance with them on one of the most vexed and universally disputed issues — climate and the environment. At this level, the encyclical is a skillful and subtle step forward for his church, though substantive environmental issues are somewhat glibly stated in the process and policy suggestions are sketchy. Francis is not resting on the laurels he has won by shutting down the din of decades of endless calumny directed at the Roman Catholic Church by the international atheist and agnostic Left that it was preeminently a medieval purveyor of cant and hypocrisy directed by a cabal of septuagenarian celibates and perverts hypocritically scolding the world about sex. Having knocked that sword from the hands of the church’s foes with the epochal question (about the conduct of gays), “Who am I to judge?” and emphasized that the role of his institution is the redemption of human souls regardless of their sexual orientation, he has now moved to make common cause with the relatively rational part of the Left on an issue where they are hard-pressed and the apparent alliance of the Roman Catholic leadership cannot fail to be influential and gratefully received. As on the previous initiative about sex and sexual behavior, Francis has executed his turn without seriously offending the ranks of the testy traditionalists that are at the core of the ancient support of his church as the premier Christian institution and principal ark of the Christian message in the world.
This is his principal achievement in this encyclical, and the substance of it, to use a phrase of Lincoln’s, is less fundamental and astounding than it at first appears. Superficially, it seems an endorsement of the familiar environmentalist assertion that climate change is really increasingly violent climatic events accompanying a warming trend (though “global warming” has been cast into doubt if not debunked). It seems at first the familiar call for reduced carbon consumption, a less materialistic approach to economic growth and public policy generally, and a unification of Christian values of life with the societal concerns of science. As the response from the Left, through its most unwavering media outlets such as the British Guardian newspaper and the BBC, and the yelps of the American Right indicate, Francis has once again scored a bull’s-eye. He has rallied traditional skeptics, and levered on the secular influence of his institution and his office, while remaining generally consistent with the tenets of Catholicism’s championship of nature, the Earth, and the virtues of gentleness and conservation, represented in canonical terms by his own namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, as well as its general sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged.
Thus, he announces in his encyclical (which may be considered the church’s official position, and is a letter to the laity and to church personnel that they are expected to try to support, but makes no pretense to being more than a “prudential judgment,” allowing adequate room for unexceptionable dissent) that the world’s rich nations owe and must start to repay a “grave social debt” because of climate change and spoliation, and must cease to promote the degeneration of the “common home” of all mankind into a “pile of filth.” This perceived descent, he wrote, has been accepted with “cheerful recklessness,” and seems to express his views, as the first pope from the developing world, that contemporary materialism and consumerism and indiscriminate technological progress are leading to the commodification of people and the exploitation of nature. These opinions are not a whitewash of misgovernment in the developing world (his native Argentina had a standard of living equal to Canada’s at the end of World War II and is almost a Third World country today). He specifically rejects “simple solutions” such as cap and trade, and thus effectively dissents from the harebrained underlying formula of the Kyoto accord, the world’s first cut at a universal solution. He dismisses concerns about population growth, avoiding a minefield within his own institution, and does not judge genetically modified food.
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Pitching to the principal Roman Catholic growth areas, such as Brazil, he writes: “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development.” He decried what he feared is “a loss of a sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.” (As the pope must be aware, his summary of the financial relations between rich and poor countries, though not without merit, is simplistic.) His chief spokesman on matters of social and justice issues, Peter Cardinal Turkson, was careful to reject “ideological, superficial, or reductionist” remedies, mitigating somewhat potentially tendentious interpretations of the encyclical. But he also rebutted the predictable demurral of the American Right, particularly Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s rejoinder (he is a Roman Catholic) that he did not take economic advice from the pope. In this, the pope has replicated the impact of earlier economic positions that were denounced by conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, rather overreactively, as smacking of Marxism. There is no reason to doubt that, in baiting this constituency, the pope is demonstrating the same tactical calculation that he has shown throughout his papacy in placating large areas of susceptible opinion while treading on the toes of the internationally unfashionable.
Francis is careful not to paint himself into the corner of being anti-science or hostile to economic growth, and equally careful to embrace the collaboration between faith and reason — praising science’s progress at solving man-made problems, but excoriating the excesses of “finance and consumerism.” This is quite defensible and serves raw meat to the Left without, in fact, endorsing anti-capitalist economics, or inflicting any of Pope Paul VI’s misguided bunk about the virtues of economic planning, much less Pius XII’s spurious championship of corporatism. He continues his successful walking of a tightrope where he appeals to the discontented without seriously affronting his natural supporters, including secular and commercial communities that could be assumed to be sympathetic to the church’s message in non-economic areas.
Where the whole exercise wanders onto less firm ground is in the representation of the encyclical as “papal teaching.” The principal scientific adviser to the Vatican, Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber, said the impact of global warming (now a tenuous notion at best — the world’s temperature has risen one Centigrade degree in 80 years) would be “abrupt, surprising, and irreversible.” The support of the natural allies of the encyclical among those not otherwise aligned with the Roman Catholic Church responded as the Holy See must have wished – as, for example, Jim Yong Kim, head of the World Bank, who agreed with “the intrinsic link between climate change and poverty.” But the pope has no standing to purport to teach economics, and while he makes a strong case that he has a perfect right to comment on political matters that most people, even non-believers, would concede, it is hazardous to cloak such a document as this in more formal terms than “prudential judgments.”
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While the tactical/political effect of Laudato Si’ seems successful, the pope is steering close to the wind in holding man responsible for the disappearance of a large number of extinct animal and plant species (did we cause the disappearance of the dinosaur?), and in hammering the decrepit piñata of global warming. But elsewhere the pope has called only for his encyclical to promote discussion and be received with an “open mind”; and in the document itself, he writes that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics” but seeks “an honest and open debate.”
On balance, Laudato Si’ seems to be up to this pope’s usual standard of acuity.
Also, he is on safe enough ground when he writes: “In the culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life. . . . Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” But he is stretching a little in introducing gender distinctions into the environment by asserting that “valuing one’s body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different” (an interesting formulation but not one whose relevance to the environment is obvious). The pope is respectful of science and is surely correct in writing that “technocratric domination” can lead to “destruction and exploitation”; and he must be deferred to when he theologically asserts that the Genesis passage giving man “dominion over the earth” does not relieve him of the Biblical obligation to “‘till and keep’ the garden of the world.”
On balance, Laudato Si’ seems to be up to this pope’s usual standard of acuity. In practical terms, he gets down to praise of public transit, conservation, and mundane activities even unto car-pooling, turning off the lights, and recycling. But apart from a few disparagements and commendations and a call for a frank and open-minded discussion, he doesn’t give any precise suggestions about a plan of comprehensive action. The climate-change zealots are now so beleaguered, they are welcoming the encyclical with great enthusiasm: another great leap forward for the Roman Catholic Church in what was long the camp of its enemies, but the measurable impact of Laudato Si’ on international policy is unlikely to be great, and could not have been intended to be. The claim of the pope’s biographer, Austen Ivereigh, that it will be a “game-changer” is unlikely to be prophetic.