Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Retrospective on Laudato Si

The most provocative argument in Pope Francis' latest encyclical Laudato Si has to be that wealthy countries and wealthy people owe a debt to poorer countries and poorer people. The pope talks about a 'grave social debt' people with access to water owe to people who lack access to water. He speaks about an 'ecological debt' that the northern hemisphere (North American and Europe) owe to the Southern hemisphere (South America, Africa, and southern Asia). He even expounds on the problem foreign debt posed to developing countries, which has ways of limiting the sorts of constructive domestic policies governments are able to pursue. Statements like these, when taken together, naturally lead to the conclusion that the pope believes the wealthy owe a debt to the poor for their wealth.

Now whether you are inclined to agree with what the pope has to say in his encyclical can probably be determined in advanced by how you react to this basic proposition. So it can function as a sort of litmus test.

Before you applaud the pope for taking this brave moral stance or condemn him for his naivete, however, it will serve to consider carefully what you are affirming or denying. If, on the one hand, you are willing to say the wealthy do owe a debt to the poor for their wealth, ask yourself the question whether you are willing to sign over a significant portion of your income/wealth to persons you don't know half-way around the world. (What about taking care of yourself?) If, on the other hand, you are not willing to do so, ask yourself the question whether anything at all obligates you to alleviate the suffering of persons you don't know half-way around the world. (What about a common humanity?) It is important that the problem be stated in a personal form, as it is quite easy to say that governments should be concerned about these things, but individual citizens (like ourselves) cannot be expected to worry themselves with 'big picture' matters. But the truth of the matter is that government policies are generally informed by the aspirations of the citizenry. So much so, in fact, that even the kings of old feared a restless crowd.

Good reasons can be found for applaud or condemning the proposition. Persons who say that the wealthy do owe the poor for their wealth might affirm that we are all in this together, that no one gets out alive. It stands to reason, as a consequence, that we ought to do our absolute best to take care of each other while we are here. Our common limitations determine in advance that no man is an island. No one lives in splendid isolation. The sufferings of some may not immediately affect others. But what comes around goes around in the end, making it a much better thing to preempt the inevitable outcome. On the other hand, persons who say that the wealthy do not owe the poor for their wealth will probably affirm that everyone should ultimately be responsible for themselves, to take their own initiative, and deserve to reap the rewards of their labour. This is true, so far as it goes. Self-interest, which should not automatically be construed as selfishness, also arises out the fact of bodily limitation. There is only so much time in a day for a person to procure the 'means of existence': food, clothing, shelter, and the like. And when all is said and done, after I have exhausted myself making provision for my own needs, there may not be a whole lot left over for others. Something similar goes through the heads of government officials when they crunch the numbers of what additional good-will expenditures they can fit into yearly budgets.

The reason I state the problem at the heart of Pope Francis' encyclical in this form is to cut through simplistic oppositions: wealthy vs. poor, capitalistic vs. socialist, survival of the fittest vs. social welfare for everyone, etc. The conversation that has grown up around the encyclical has flirted stating its fundamental problem in terms of a basic conflict. The pope's argument, however, is developed much more systematically than a quick summary of his policy positions can adequately represent. The theme of the encyclical, expressed in the subtitle 'On Care for Our Common Home,' is how we must collectively contend with the fact of bodily limitation.

Let's first be clear with what I mean by bodily limitation. The pope does not advance spurious Malthusian arguments by measuring the growth of human communities against the availability of natural resources. Malthusian arguments assume that population growth will soon outstrip the amount of natural resources available, leading to the inevitable conclusion that a lot of people are going to go hungry.

The pope's arguments are very different. Rather than natural limitations, which he readily acknowledges, his arguments almost exclusively concern the way in which human beings artificially limit each other's access to natural resources. Through the many different ways that we relate to each other and to the natural world, he thinks that we either include or exclude each other from access to natural resources. What happens, for example, when factories pour toxic sludge into a river that also provides villages downstream with water. Certainly the factory owners have a right to their profits. They invested in the factory. They put their time and effort into the project. But do they have an absolute right to profit at the expense of local residents' access to clean water? The pope says unequivocally no. In this sense, the pope thinks that those who profit from the factory's output owe the local residents a debt, since the profit is earned at their expense.

The only way that the pope's argument can make sense is if the natural world is something that all human beings hold in common by natural right and the institution of private property means something less than absolute possession. Indeed, it is the standard Catholic position that the Creator God is the absolute owner of his creation. It is his creation. All forms of human possession can only be derivative. On such terms, private property cannot be absolutely private in the sense that persons can use it however they want. It can only be something held in trust by its human owner. Belief in the Creator God, in this respective, functions to level the playing field between property owners and non-owners. It reinforces respect for others (i.e. 'Love your neighbour as yourself'). It tells property owners they hold their property in trust, ultimately in the service of a common good. It tells non-property owners that property is held in trust, again, ultimately in service of a common good. And that is? Human flourishing.

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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Anticipating Laudato Si

Later this week, on Thursday, June 18, Pope Francis will publish what has become perhaps the most anticipated papal encyclical to date. The document will be titled 'Laudato si,' or 'Praised be,' borrowing a phrase from Saint Francis of Assisi's 'Canticle of the Sun.' It is widely anticipated that its focus will be on problems of environmental degradation of the vulnerability of the world's poorest to climate change.

A great deluge of commentary in the days prior to and immediately following the encyclicals release can be expected. Most of what appears in the mainstream media will amount to little more than misappropriated misinformation. Parties will seek to use the publication of the encyclical to advance their own agendas. This is only par for the course in the unruly public square. To weather the storms of punditry, here are a few important things to bear in mind.

The meaning of the encyclical will be especially contested in the United States, where Catholics are very prominently represented in high political office (e.g. the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner) and/or are standing for the Republican nomination in the 2016 election (e.g. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum). The pope is scheduled to address Congress, during a week-long trip to Washington, D.C. in the fall. A member of the pope's advisory council listed among the issues that he is likely to raise in that venue are the need to welcome immigrants, the need to support families, the need to protect the environment, the need to fight political partisanship, and the role of capitalism is fostering economic inequality.

So the meaning of the encyclical will naturally be caught up in American political debates. A couple of different narratives are currently being offered by the mainstream media. The first, from left-leaning interest groups. is that the pope is bringing the Catholic Church in line with the latest and best environmental science. The second, from the other side of the political spectrum, is that the pope is in danger off overstepping the bounds of his magisterial authority to pronounce on matters of religion and morality. Both encourage the idea that the pope is making a radical break with the past. They, in fact, claim essentially the same thing: the pope is breaking with religious orthodoxy in order to accommodate the latest science. The only point that they differ is whether this is a good thing or not.

But nothing Pope Francis has to say will be new. Nothing; not a single thing. It will have already been anticipated in his own public statements and formal writings, or in the writings of his predecessors. His first encyclical, 'Lumen Fidei,' or 'The light of faith,' argued that faith undergirds the common good by pointing people beyond merely relating to one's fellow human beings 'on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear.' The other major publication of his papacy, 'Evangelii Gaudium,' the 'Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today's World,' embraced the language of 'the social implications of the Gospel,' highlighting the special concern in the Gospels for the poor. Throughout these documents, fairly explicit criticisms of the inequities of capitalism may also be found.

So why the disconnect? Why will pundits inevitably talk about the encyclical as if it were a radical innovation? In large part, the problem has to do with the peculiar authority accorded to the language and methods of empirical science in the United States. On the political left, it is almost a foregone conclusion that 'science' is liberal and progressive. The political right seems to recognize the inherent bias, but it objects to any conflation of 'science' with 'religion' and 'morality.'

The limited empirical question about whether climate change is actually occurring will not detain the pope for very long. Much like John Paul II's simple affirmation that human beings have evolved in 1996, Francis is not likely to engage with the particulars of the scientific debate. Sources close to the Vatican do say that he will affirm the 'contentious' claim that present climate change is mainly caused by human action, and is not the result of naturally, long-term trends. An Italian 'draft' of the encyclical, which was leaked yesterday, appears to confirm this.

The final point is key to understanding the nature of the argument that Francis is likely to make. His more conservative objectors--including, it is worth noting, bloggers over at the American Catholic website First Things--neatly divide the human world into two 'spheres': a limited sphere in which empirical science holds sway and a comprehending sphere in which religion and morality stand preeminent. Natural scientists belong on one side; Francis and the church belong on the other. Or so the story goes.

Extrapolating from what the pope has hitherto written, his argument is likely to be framed in terms which undercut the strict distinction between secular and sacred 'spheres.' The language of distinct spheres seems to suggest to disconnected halves of human life. Religion and morality, in this telling, belong to the side of the soul: private, subjective, internal. Natural science belongs to the side of the body: public, objective, external.

The difficulty that this poses for a man who is acclaimed the Vicar of Christ is that he represents the incarnation--the embodiment of God--in human form and the extension of the God-man's body into human history in the form of the church community. The basic tenet of the Catholic faith cuts right through the abstract language of 'spheres,' pointing to the fact that religion and morality has always concerned, and will continue to concern, human bodies. Not without consequence, after all, does the Catholic mass elevates the sacrifice of the God-man's dying body to an object of worship.

This focus on the human beings/bodies naturally lends itself to apocalyptic pronouncements. Indeed, the leaked Italian draft of the encyclical leaves ample reason to think that the pope will make more than a few dire warnings about prospects for the future. The language of 'spheres' displaces human bodies from the center of any discussion about how we ought to live--both in the world and with each other. And if the current language of government, academia, and public discussion is cast in an explicitly empirical mode, it is not hard to conclude that our collective future looks quite grim.