Saturday, April 25, 2015

Conservative Catholicism and Climate Change

With a new a papal encyclical on climate change on its way and a papal visit to the United States scheduled for this fall, it has been interesting to watch different groups of American Catholics grapple with the 'meaning' of Pope Francis' ministry.

The Roman Catholic Church, of course, embraces a plurality of outlooks on almost every topic under the sun. This may come as a surprised to some outsiders but the Church is as much a debating club as it is a community of worship and service. When a pope makes an off-the-cuff remark--like Francis did when he said in response to a question about homosexuality, Who am I to judge?--broad segments of the faithful scurry to appropriate for themselves or distance themselves from his statements. They affirm what they agree with, and claim it for their own. They caution their constituencies about following this or that line of argument to far.

News that Francis would promulgate an encyclical on climate change sent similar aftershocks through the online Catholic community. Many more left-leaning Catholics eagerly embraced the announcement. About 70% of Catholics in the United States, for example, are supposed to be concerned about climate change, a number that is much higher than in other Protestant churches.

Not so the more ideologically conservative Catholic pundits and their readership. The National Catholic Reporter's Brian Roewe has good summary of the various different things being said, as well as the various criticisms being offered. 'Some conservative corners,' he writes, 'have a more tepid take, welcoming papal guidance on environmental issues, while voicing concerns about the document's ultimate direction: toward a reaffirmation of the stewardship role over creation, or into the boiler of the contentious climate debate still firing in the U.S.' ('Conservative corners have tepid take Francis's environmental encyclical,' Apr. 21, 2015.)

One of the more impressive things about the discussion is how measured are the criticisms. Even when they disagree with the pope, conservative pundits will not openly break with the authority that he represents. The result is a sort of hostile deference. Rather than do the online equivalent of throwing up their hands and storming out of the room because Francis is obviously being unreasonable for not seeing the world the way that they see the world, the conservative Catholic punditry resorts to 'raising' the level of debate, refining their conceptual distinctions, and expounding a great length on the dangerous intellectual precedents set by the environmental movement. You will not find any overt suggestions that Francis has abandoned the fundamental principles of Roman Catholicism. But you will find almost everything just shy of that mark.

I happen to think that the conservative punditry will end up looking foolish in retrospect. The document will be theologically moderate. It will assert the sovereignty of God, the dignity of the person, and the gift of the creation, while holding out two possibilities: to either live well with one's fellow human beings on this world of God's creation; or to live poorly by always seeking one's own advantage, regardless of the cost to one's fellow human beings and to the world. Its basic message will be able to be summarized in Jesus' two commandments to love God and to love one's neighbour as oneself.

Because the Catholic Church assumes a much longer perspective on who counts as one's neighbour than it typically the case, the document will affirm a continuity with sacred tradition and include warnings about not to exhaust the world's natural resources in the effort to enrich ourselves at the expense of future generations. It will explore the destructive potentials of the merely material, capitalist ideology of economic development of its own sake. It will point out that the wealthy half of humanity who benefit from the breakneck pace of development are in a much better position to weather the effects of climate change than the poor half. And it will argue, on that basis, that climate change is a fundamentally moral issue because Jesus came to both rich and poor alike, to make all men fathers, brothers, and sons, and all women mothers, sisters, and daughters.

My reason for thinking the conservative punditry will end up looking foolish has to do with the sorts of arguments that they are making against the idea that Francis is going to promulgate an encyclical on climate change. They forget that Francis will not squirrel himself away in a room for a couple weeks, emerging a with complete draft, like Athena sprang from the forehead of Zeus. The encyclical, the highest platform for church teaching, is born from a consultative and collaborative process. In the absence of something to read, they are grasping for something to say.

The conservative punditry trot out old hobby horses that they like to ride when called upon to talk about issues in the general vicinity of climate change.

The first, and only the most obvious, is incipient anti-humanism of the modern environmentalist movement. Human beings are the problem. The solution is to get rid of them.

This is closely related to a second theological conviction of the modern environmentalist movement. The Gaia Hypothesis: the earth itself is alive and godlike. Human come from the earth and return to the earth. Or, we can state this more expansively to say that we are all stardust--which we are, but that's not my point.

These are stock-in-trade objections. The punditry will point out that they preclude seeing human beings as independent actors, who are responsible for their actions. They will also point out that if you *really* believe this, you will promptly kill yourself. Whining about how other people are destroying the planet while your own footprint continues to grow is either duplicitous or self-deceiving.

However, the problem for the the conservative punditry is that Francis will not make such elementary theological mistakes. The pundits can speak darkly about 'intellectual influences' and the consequences of certain tendencies of thought. Their objections will have no traction when the encyclical is released.

They do, however, offer slightly more sophisticated arguments about Francis' 'sphere of competency.' As Roewe shows, it is widely assumed that Francis will be deciding on scientific questions regarding climate change, while they believe he should restrict himself to moral and spiritual direction. Robert P. George has pointed out in a short reflection at First Things that as far as the empirical science goes, Francis stands exactly where the rest of us stand--which is to say, on less than certain grounds. 

The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based, conservative think-think funded by in small part by Charles Koch (to the tune of $25,000), has even said it will send a group of scientists to the Vatican to discredit the existing climate science consensus. The Guardian reports, 'Jim Lakely, a Heartland spokesman, said the thinktank was “working on” securing a meeting with the Vatican. “I think Catholics should examine the evidence for themselves, and understand that the Holy Father is an authority on spiritual matters, not scientific ones,” he said.' ('Conservative think tanks seek to change Pope Francis' mind on climate change,' April 24, 2015)

These are bait-and-switch arguments. Though they are ostensibly directed towards different ends, they serve to restrict what Francis might say to a limited moral or spiritual 'sphere of competence.' But what they actually accomplish is to prevent Francis from make things like economic inequality or access to natural resources moral issues.

Everyone knows that Francis is not a scientist, and so not competent to judge climate sense. The objection is therefore hardly novel. What is novel is the use of scientific objections to deflect from moral issues. So when Francis says we ought to do this and ought not do that, and his conservative Catholic critics respond by saying that he is not competent to judge the science (which is never conclusive anyway), the critics are either fooling themselves, or trying fooling the rest of us.

Francis has never claimed to be competent to judge the science. But if you are a Catholic (which I am not), then you defer to his judgment regarding what it means to love God and love one's neighbour as oneself--in principle, at least. As he is reported to have said immediately following his election, 'one of the reasons he took the name Francis was because St. Francis of Assisi is "the man who loves and protects creation." He went on to say, "These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?" ('Encyclical on environment stimulates hope among academics and activists,' Apr. 24, 2015)

The line that the conservative punditry is walking is a dangerous one. Taken to its conclusion, their argument says that moral and spiritual values are subjective and private, and have nothing to do with bodies and society. No pundit, of course, would agree to this wholeheartedly, since it would undercut their arguments against abortion and the nature of the family. On the other hand, if moral and spiritual values do have something to do with bodies and society, then an encyclical on the environment that draws attention to social justice issues is entirely apropos.

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