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The challenge of “Laudato Si'”

We were expecting something big from Pope Francis: something controversial, something that carried a heavy political charge.  What he has given us is something bigger.
Laudato Si’ is more provocative, but less political, than what we expected.  Those who try to twist the document into one ideological framework or another are doing a disservice not only to the Holy Father but also to those many potential readers who could profit from a careful perusal of the encyclical.  The Pope has set out not to change public policies, but to convert private lives.

Read the full text.  Or if that’s too much to ask, read the prayer with which Pope Francis concludes the encyclical; that gives a clear sense of what the Pontiff is trying to achieve.

Forget all the hype that was built up before the release of this encyclical.  Laudato Si’ is not a statement about climate change.  A reader disengaged from today’s ideological battles, having digested the full 192-page text, might conclude that the encyclical is mostly about sustainable development, or anthropomorphism, or the unequal profits and burdens associated with exploitation of natural resources.  More generally it is about living in harmony with nature, preserving a humble reverence for the intricate beauty and balance of creation.  One perceptive reader has remarked, quite accurately, that Laudato Si’ could be read as this Pope’s homage to his two most recent predecessors, since their thoughts are cited constantly.  For me, the most interesting facet of the encyclical is the Pope’s development of the concept of “ecological debt,” which I’ll explain below.

But if you think Laudato Si’ is about climate change, I suspect you might also think that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is about suicide.  Yes, the topic is mentioned; indeed it’s a very important part of the story.  But it’s not the main theme.

Climate change

Prior to the public release of this encyclical, many analysts predicted that the Pope would denounce climate-change skepticism.  I prefer to think of myself as an “agnostic” rather than a “skeptic” on the question of man-made climate change, since I do not have the scientific credentials to justify taking any stance on the issue.  But insofar as I am not convinced that human activity is changing the climate, I fully expected a papal rebuke.  I found none.

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” Pope Francis writes in the relevant section of the encyclical (paragraph #23).  Well, that’s a fact; there is a consensus.  But scientific questions are not resolved by consensus, and anyway the key question is not whether the climate is changing, but why.

In that same section — after conceding that many factors other than human action play a role — the Pope goes on to note that “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.”  Again, yes; a number of scientific studies make that argument.  And a number of other studies dispute it.

Man-made climate change either is, or is not, a scientific reality.  A pronouncement by the Pope — who has no special authority on scientific issues — will not affect that reality one way or another.  In <i the encyclical the Holy Father clearly sides with the majority opinion, but he does not attempt to close off the scientific debate.  More importantly, he constructs an argument that does not rely on uncertain scientific theories — an argument that will endure the test of time, no matter how the climate-change debate is ultimately resolved.

Pope Francis is not interested in technical solutions to a technical problem; he is hunting for bigger game.

To be sure the Pope stresses that we face an ecological crisis.  He says at the outset (#2) that nature “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”  He follows up (#3) by saying that just as St. John XXIII issued his encyclical Pacem in Terris when mankind stood on the brink of nuclear disaster, so he is issuing Laudato Si’ at a time of looming environmental disaster.

Still, having established that he considers the matter one of the utmost urgency, the Pontiff does not proceed to examine the wonkish policy proposals aimed at resolving the problem.  In one of his few mentions of specific proposals (#171), the Holy Father quickly dismisses the notion of trading carbon credits as a “quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.”  Pope Francis is not interested in technical solutions to a technical problem; he is hunting for bigger game.

The anthropocentric temptation

Actually it is the reliance on technical solutions that the Pope sees at the root of environmental problems.  As he introduces the encyclical (#10) he mentions his love for St. Francis of Assisi, “a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself.”  Pope Francis wants to emulate that sort of life, and encourage us all to do likewise.

Here the Pope shows his “green” sympathies.  But his views seem to align more closely with the “crunchy cons” of the American right than with the environmental activists of the left.  R.R.  Reno goes too far, I think, in suggesting that the Pope is reviving the anti-modernism of the Catholic past.  Yet he is certainly criticizing the modern way of life.

In his laments for the loss of natural scenery and of family farms, about powerful multinational corporations and blighted urban landscapes, Pope Francis can be read as a liberal.  But the same complaints have been characteristic of an important strain of conservatism: the agrarians and the distributists, the disciples of Russell Kirk, the Small is Beautiful school of E.  F.  Schumacher.  I do not mean to suggest that Pope Francis himself emerges as a conservative; he does not.  Readers from both ends of the political spectrum will find in this document some reasons to cheer and also, if they are honest, some reasons to examine their own consciences.

Take, just for instance (although it is definitely not a minor issue) the Pope’s insistence on reverence for all human life.  He mentions (#136) that it is “troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life.”  And he writes (#118) of a “constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings.”  The argument that population growth is the source of our environmental woes is, he says (#50) “one way of refusing to face the issues.”  He continues:

It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized…
On the other hand, defenders of free-market economics will be unsettled by the Pope’s argument (#123) that reliance on the market alone is a form of moral relativism.  Later (#129) he adds:

To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.
Above all the Pope criticizes a society that defines progress in terms of the stimulation and satisfaction of purely material needs.  “This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume.”  (#203) The consumer is not the whole man, and for that matter homo economicus does not exhaust the reality of homo sapiens.  Thus the Pontiff issues a challenge to the economic profession: “The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy.”  (#195)

But wait: If the goal of economic activity is not to maximize profits, what is the goal?  Pope Francis suggests a broader conception of what constitutes success.  Again and again he speaks of “sustainable development,” emphasizing that the economic activities of a healthy society should pave the way for further “sustainable development” in future generations.

In nature, the Pope reminds his readers (#22), everything serves a purpose.  What dies decays, and fertilizes the growth of new life.  For centuries farmers have known that by leaving fields fallow and rotating crops, they can preserve their land; foresters have learned to plant trees to replace the ones cut down for logs.  The Pope observes:

But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.  We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations.
Now there is a challenge for 21st-century entrepreneurs: to find ways to turn waste products into elements of future production! And maybe it can be done, Pope Francis suggests (#159), if we adopt a different attitude toward industrial production: “Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.”

Throwaway culture

The characteristically Christian instinct to share — both with the poor and with future generations — is diametrically opposed to the impulses of what Pope Francis has frequently condemned as a “throwaway culture.”  In Laudato Si’ the Pontiff enlarges on this familiar theme, decrying the tendency of modern man to identify productive resources, use them up, and move on without a thought to the long-term consequences.

The characteristically Christian instinct to share — both with the poor and with future generations — is diametrically opposed to the impulses of what Pope Francis has frequently condemned as a “throwaway culture.”

The poor do not enjoy the same opportunities to profit from the results of technological progress, the Pope reminds us.  Yet they suffer disproportionately from any negative environmental consequences.  Poverty always implies an inability to insulate oneself from life’s harsher realities.

Wealth, on the other hand, gives some fortunate people the opportunity to live in splendid isolation, blissfully unaware of the problems that others are facing.  Pope Francis remarks that the world’s wealthiest people pay little attention to their less fortunate neighbors, in part because they have little contact with them.  In a passage (#49) that could almost be drawn from Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, he writes:

This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.  They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population.
Laudato Si’ envisions a world in which there is no demand for gated suburban communities with manicured lawns, or for hermetically sealed steel-and-glass skyscrapers in which corporate executives decide the fate of people living thousands of miles away.  He argues that at each stage in development, everyone involved — including workers and residents as well as entrepreneurs and financiers — should weigh every facet of a proposal, including its potential impacts on the poor, on the environment, on the community, and on the future.  The Pope insists (#183): “Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or program.  It should be part of the process from the beginning.”

Furthermore, because political leaders in any given country might be shifting influences that deter effective long-term planning — and because we are “witnessing a weakening of the power of nation-states” (#175) anyway — the Pope advocates greater reliance on a global authority to enforce environmental standards.  Here his suggestion troubles me, because it plays into the ambitious plans of the United Nations: an organization run by people who are not friends of the Catholic Church, or of healthy local communities, or of human life.  But to keep things in perspective, this Pope’s call for an international political authority is no more insistent — and no more unsettling — than that issued by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

The ecological debt

As I mentioned above, in my view the most intriguing new perspective in Laudato Si’ — the aspect of this encyclical most likely to find a permanent place in Catholic social teaching — is the concept of “ecological debt.”  In previous encyclicals, other Roman Pontiffs have referred to the “social mortgage” on private property.  The “ecological debt” is closely related.

In Catholic social teaching, the right to private property is essential, but it is not absolute.  Since all material resources should serve the common good, and since anyone in possession of valuable property is ultimately indebted to God for his blessings, the wealthy few have a moral obligation to use their resources in ways that serve the poor.  The “social mortgage,” then, is roughly equivalent to the principle of noblesse oblige; with money and power come certain implied obligations to the community.

The “ecological debt” follows the same logic.  When we extract ore or fossil fuels from the earth, or put dangerous chemicals into the air and water, we are potentially causing problems for our children and grandchildren.  Ideally we should stop running up environmental debts that future generations must repay.  At a minimum we should find ways to help them pay down those debts.

Again, Pope Francis does not propose grand schemes to resolve the environmental crisis that he perceives.  Instead he proposes changing attitudes and behaviors incrementally, even alluding (#230) to the “little way” of St. Therese of Lisieux.  “an integral ecology,” he reasons, “is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.”

Insofar as he is lobbying for anything in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis is lobbying for humility in the face of creation.  In the most endearing passage of the encyclical (#227) he offers one very simple practical way of nourishing that humility:

One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals.  I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom.  That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life.
In the final analysis Laudato Si’ calls for an attitude of reverence toward creation.  Rather than seeking to exploit every resource that we find, we should be learning to live in harmony with our environment (#77) — to set our schedules in accordance with the rhythms of nature, to perceive and respond to “the love which moves the sun and the stars.”


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