Thursday, June 18, 2015

Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home

Early this morning at 6:00, while most of us on the east coast of North America were desperately wishing for another few minutes of sleep, a congregation gathered in Vatican City to greet the publication of 'Luadato si,' or 'Praised be to you,' subtitled 'On the Care of Our Common Home.' The document is the second encyclical and third major piece of writing of Pope Francis. True to the reports, it takes a position on the effects of climate change on poverty around the world.

I started reading the encyclical around 7:00 or 7:30. By the time I had finished, the mainstream media and the American Catholic media had already begun to publish commentary. The eclectic samplings of the mainstream media does not concern me so much. Francis opened the encyclical by explicitly stating that he was not simply addressing the Catholic Church. Since his topic was relation between climate change and poverty, he addressed himself to the whole human race. These problems concern us all. And the message seems to have gotten through. Major news sources like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and even The Weather Network have all published review articles exploring the connection.

The reaction among American Catholic news sources has been more mixed. There is a very good summary article by Father Raymond de Souza over at the National Catholic Register. But the remaining offerings seem much more introspective, more interested in making sense of Catholic identity than in contending with the actual contents of the encyclical. Over at the National Catholic Reporter, a couple of articles by Brian Roewe ('US church grateful for Pope Francis' 'marvelous' encyclical') and Sean Michael Winters ('Laudato Si' arrives') take great pains to affirm the continuity of the document with Church tradition. The reception over at First Things has been predictably tepid. R.R. Reno muses about the 'Return of Anti-Catholic Modernism,' warning against misunderstanding the pope's views on 'science,' notwithstanding his apparent acceptance of the findings of climate science  Matthew Schmidt, deputy editor at First Things, published an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning, which editors gave the unfortunate title 'Pope Francis wants to roll back progress. Is the world ready?' Like other offering on the First Things blog by Charles Caput ('Praised Be to You, Lord') and Josiah Neeley ('Let's Listen to the Pope on Climate'), they are silent on questions of poverty.

We can perhaps forgive the American Catholic response for glossing over the fact that the pope proposed to address himself, not simply to the Catholic faithful, but to the whole human race. It was really early in the morning, after all. Editors needed to get copy online as soon as possible.

Still, it is odd to see American Catholics, especially Catholics on the political right, avoid talking about what have been a common theme throughout Francis' papacy: those things we human beings share in common. It might appear to someone like myself, not being Catholic, as though they bent over backwards not to talk about the encyclical's subtitle. But to say as much is presumptuous on my part. The strange impression is probably a result of the so-called 'Culture Wars' of the last 40 years. This has created a fortress mentality around Catholic America and allowed for the cultivation of a peculiarly introspective language even about things that we ostensibly share in common: like a planet.

Having finishing reading through the document a first time, it struck me that the pope's most challenging contribution to conversations about climate change and poverty was precisely his robust defense of the idea that the planet is our common home. Take the lesson behind 'tragedy of the commons,' one of the founding myths of modern capitalism, is that land said to be held in common will inevitably be abused by self-interested economic actors. If the commons was where people grazed their cows, those with more cows would take a larger share of the commons for themselves. This naturally raises the question of whether the commons can ever truly be 'common.' The common land more likely to be used and abused by those in a position to do so. So would it not be much better divvy up the common to the highest bidder, whose self-interest would compel them to care for the land because it was their private property? So it would seem. The same sort of rationale, of course, can be applied to any natural resource: land, oil, water, even air. Why not assign a monetary value to absolutely everything and let private actors earn profits? Does it not follow that private actors are naturally inclined to care for their property? 

We can develop the answer presented in 'Luadato si' in two parts: first a critique of 'technocratic capitalism' and second a proposal of a 'communitarian solution.' (The short answer is no.) Francis begins with the rather mundane assertion that human beings share a bodily world--a material environment--with other human beings, other living beings, and a host of inanimate things besides. Not an extremely contentious position to take, to be sure. Francis then criticizes extensively a modern scientific outlook which supposes the world of bodies is a passive medium, which, we in our scientific wisdom, can theorize about. This is a more contentious claim, of course. Francis contends that a modern scientific outlook divides the human world up into objective and subjective halves; it uses the methods of modern science to study the objective world, but grudgingly accepts that the subjective world (religious belief, moral value, and so on) ought to remain undetermined--that is, people ought to believe whatever they want about God, the afterlife, good and evil, and so on. But there is an obvious problem, Francis thinks, with the modern scientific outlook. Persons are not merely subjects that think; they are also natural objects in the world. Persons have/are their individual bodies. Therefore, as Francis recognizes, moral value accrues to this ostensibly natural object: the human body, which has no other existence than the one it shares in this world with other bodies, including other human beings and other living things.

The modern scientific outlook knows nothing of this community of existence. If Francis is to be believed, it cannot. The evidence, he thinks, is everywhere for us to see. We think of the most profound human problems as merely requiring a technological solution. We think of both the natural and human worlds as potential generators of private wealth. The two, of course, go hand in hand. Technology is usually found in the hands of private actors, who are in a position to generate wealth. We 'objectify' the world and ourselves in it. We slice it into ever smaller parts in order to make it productive and profitable. We do not, however, think of our local, national, and global communities as common enterprises. But since we all are bodies in a world which we share with others--since we cannot escape living in community with others--we deceive ourselves into thinking that our actions can have no consequences.

The true lesson of the tragedy of the commons, Francis suggests, is that we not forget the great deal we share in common with each other. According to our bodily lives, we share an entire world. But there is a certain perverse logic in monetizing and privatizing absolutely every natural resource. If persons are cut off from resources like clean water and air, because private enterprise has been allowed to abuse these for private gain, they become increasingly vulnerable to changes of circumstance. Those who have benefited from private gain, of course, are in a position to protect themselves (their bodies) from the extreme effects of environmental degradation. Not so the 'undeserving' poor and dispossessed. Francis, in fact, goes so far as to argue that private interests who abuse the commons for the private gain owe the poor a debt. 

Francis only gestures at what a 'communitarian' solution to our collectively shared, long-term problems would look like. The Catholic Church, he recognizes, is not in a position to reverse long-trends trends in human cultivation and consumption of natural resources. 'Luadato si' speaks generically about a change of culture, but is for the most part silent on the role that governments must play in making positive steps towards a more equitable future.

Indeed, there is an rather straight-forward argument, left undeveloped in the document, that governments especially are responsible to represent the common interests of the people. To the extent that governments function to serve private interests, it is difficult to see how we can hold anything in common.

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