I consider myself a free market fan, a climate change skeptic, and a Roman Catholic. For weeks now, the secular media has been telling me that I would hate this papal encyclical. Pope Francis was going to stick it to the anti-scientific conservative deniers and side firmly with the more liberal environmentalists. Now that it is out, reaction is even more hysterical. Fortunately for me, I have learned not to listen to the secular media on anything to do with my faith. Most journalists can’t understand that when it comes to the Catholic Church (whose very meaning is “universal”), it is not about Right or Left, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. It’s not about scoring short-term victories for a particular “side.” There are no “sides.” We are one community of believers and one human race; we win and we lose together.
Though I have seen his words taken out of context and twisted on many occasions, Pope Francis has never given me any reason to doubt his deep faith and good intentions. I was inspired by his palpable excitement over the Gospel in Evangelii Gaudium. Far from dreading its release, I was thrilled when a leaked copy of Laudato Si’ was made available. Having since taken the time to read it carefully in its entirety (as I expect many have not), I am now ready to share my thoughts.
Taken as a whole, I found much in the encyclical to appreciate and ponder. Pope Francis’ call to unite in defense of the environment is timely and well-stated. I will however add a few of my own observations to the pope’s analysis of the scientific, economic, and political situation. These three “quibbles” are not so much cases of outright disagreement as they are merely additional perspectives. First, I think Pope Francis overstates the case for anthropogenic climate change, though he is careful to maintain that the Church does not seek to settle scientific debates. Second, while much of Francis’ criticism of global capitalism is warranted, I think he overlooks the potential of the free market to generate solutions to both environmental degradation and poverty. Lastly, while international cooperation is certainly necessary, I view the suggestion of a global governing authority as somewhat naïve and potentially dangerous. However, none of these “quibbles” prevent me from embracing the larger point Pope Francis is making about the moral imperative of caring for the environment and the poor. It is one we would all do well to heed.
Everything is Connected
In addressing concern for our “common home,” Pope Francis is neither overstepping his bounds nor breaking with the rich history and tradition of Catholicism. He makes numerous references to other popes, bishops, and saints who have at various times expressed concern for the environment as a moral imperative. For example, he cites Saint John Paul II’s warning that human beings seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” He also notes Pope Benedict’s recognition that the environment and society have both been “greatly damaged by our irresponsible behavior,” resulting from “the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”
I agree with Pope Francis that Christianity obliges us to be good stewards of the environment, that appreciation for nature can draw us closer to God, and that respect for God, nature, and human life are intimately intertwined. Everything is connected:
Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb..
When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. …Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.
I now realize that most of my dissatisfaction with the secular environmentalist movement is the result of its devaluing of human life and its misplaced worship of creation in place of the Creator. How can we mourn the extinction of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper when we ignore the millions of human beings suffering from disease, starvation, and war? How can we go to such lengths to protect the nesting grounds of birds and turtles when millions of children are annually slaughtered in the womb? Either life is a gift to be cherished, or it is not. Either there is a power higher and a purpose greater than our individual desires, or there is none. You can’t have it both ways.
Quibble #1: Climate Change
After establishing respect for the environment as a moral and religious issue, Francis goes on to catalogue the damage we have done to our planet over the course of the last two hundred years. This list includes pollution, loss of biodiversity, decline in the quality of human life, societal breakdown, global inequality, and, of course, climate change. Some in the media would have us believe that Francis’ call to dialogue about the climate is in fact the end of the discussion, but consider his words for yourself:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet 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.
In at least six other places that I can count, Pope Francis tempers the case for global warming with the caveat that the Church does not seek to settle matters of scientific debate (paragraphs 14, 15, 16, 19, 61, and 188). It appears that his advisors on this issue included a number of climate activists to the exclusion of at least one climate skeptic, which may explain his “catastrophist” position. I personally don’t find the evidence as persuasive, making this Quibble #1.
First, it is important to note that the earth has experienced times of far greater concentration of carbon in the atmosphere without a corresponding increase in average temperatures. This contradiction led the founder of Greenpeace to come out as a climate change skeptic. The evidence for global warming is often presented as conclusive, but several recent scandals have shown scientists to be manipulating the data to exaggerating warming trends. Some even described the decades-long hiatus as a “disaster,” which explains the ditching of “global warming” for the more neutral “climate change.” But if we are to count rising, falling, and steady temperatures all as evidence of man-made climate change, then the theory is unfalsifiable and thus unscientific.
It is also worth noting that climate change is largely a prediction about the future. With as much disagreement as exists over the past and present, how much greater is the margin of error over events that have not yet occurred? A number of scientific models have already been discredited, including predictions of another Ice Age and concerns that overpopulation would run the world out of food. Even if the Catholic Church and the scientific community were to reach an agreement on the issue of global warming, this alone would not constitute ironclad proof, as they were united in support for the geocentric theory for nearly fifteen centuries. Pope Francis himself bucks the majority of the world’s scientists when he offers an intelligent design theory of human evolution:
Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems… Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God…
Much like the idea that human life evolved via a series of random genetic mutations, theories of anthropogenic climate change contain several holes and contradictions. Yet to question either in the scientific community is to risk professional suicide. This is not to assert with 100% certitude that global warming is not occurring. I agree with Bjorn Lomborg that there is likely a small amount of global warming related to human activity that has been greatly exaggerated, but to stop or even slow it would require draconian restrictions on production and consumption that would have devastating effects on human life.
This leads to the question: if one disagrees with the proposition that climate change is an apocalyptic threat, what does this mean for human behavior? Are we to keep wasting, consuming, polluting, and emitting away just because the world won’t end if we do? I think not. You don’t need to believe in global warming to value clean air, pristine oceans, biodiversity, human life, and more prudent development of the earth’s resources. Imagine I told you that smoking cigarettes would cause you to spontaneously combust. This statement would be false, but this is no reason to start smoking two packs a day. I agree with Ross Douthat that the pope’s arguments still resonate even if stagnation is more likely than catastrophe. Perhaps a greater concern is “not a fear that the problems of our age can’t last, but the fear that, actually, they can.”
Quibble #2: Capitalism
It is true that Pope Francis has some harsh words for global capitalism:
The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment…
Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals….This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume.
I don’t disagree with either of these points. The free market is not infallible, and it can encourage an unhealthy obsession with “stuff.” However, we should realize that all economic systems have their drawbacks and none can alleviate the very human vices of greed and short-sightedness. The rules of the game may change; our fallen human nature does not.
When Adam Smith first laid out a rationale for capitalism, he argued that individuals freely pursuing their own self-interest would add up to the collective benefit of society. However, there isn’t a capitalist alive today who doesn’t acknowledge the existence of “market failures,” or times when individual self-interest redounds to society’s overall detriment. Pollution is a prime example of a market failure. Thus, we need reasonable regulations on development and prohibitions on certain activities like the dumping of toxic waste into rivers. We need to set just limits on what individuals can do to alter the landscape, even if it is on private property. A great example of this is the disgusting practice of mountain-top removal that has scarred the face of my own home in Appalachia. The answer is not to replace capitalism, but rather to ensure that it is properly regulated. Much of the apparent failures of capitalism are really the result of the immoral collusion of Big Business and Big Government to stifle true competition and “rig the game” for the well-connected.
Pope Francis occasionally sounds as though the market were an obstacle to the poor, when it has in fact enabled billions to escape poverty by rising into the middle class. Industrialization has been proven to dramatically increase standards of living, and capitalism is the only system that has consistently allowed for upward mobility. However, just as the system creates winners, it also leaves losers. We cannot turn our backs on those who have lost out in the free market, whether as a result of low skills, lack of initiative, or just plain bad luck. Thus, in addition to sensible regulation, we also need policies to help meet the needs of the poor that recognize the inherent dignity of work. Pope Francis is correct in calling for us all to examine our own patterns of consumption and disposal, to resist the spiritual emptiness of consumerism, and to embrace the old wisdom that “less is more.” (Although his criticism of air conditioning may have set me back a few years in my attempts to convert my husband.)
Quibble #3: Global Government
My biggest point of disagreement with Laudato Si’ comes in paragraph 175:
(I)t is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions. As Benedict XVI has affirmed in continuity with the social teaching of the Church: “To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago”.
Yes, global challenges require international cooperation. But unless one country’s actions gravely endanger another’s, national sovereignty should be respected. If we can’t trust CEOs and corporate boards to put the common good above their own, how can we put this expectation on elected officials and international agencies? Just as the preservation of individual freedom yields greater results on the micro level, so too is national sovereignty preferable to global governance at the macro level. Man’s fallen nature requires government to be limited and power decentralized so as to prevent tyranny.
Conservatives who feel awkward about disagreeing with the pope on climate change should pause and consider whether they have something to learn from his position on the environment. Liberals who feel triumphant about the pope’s stance on climate change should consider whether they have something to learn from his position on abortion:
Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?
When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.
Maybe we all need to be reminded that whatever our particular –ism might be (capitalism, communism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism), it can never hope to contain the whole truth. Our -ism’s don’t have all the answers; they offer but pieces of the greater puzzle. There is always the danger of isolating one piece of the truth and blowing it out of proportion. This is why I prefer to identify as Catholic instead of Republican, conservative, or libertarian. We should be willing to work together with all people of good will, even if we disagree over the best methods to achieve our common goals. Despite having my own opinions, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to benefit from Francis’ faith and wisdom, and ready to seriously reflect on how I can heed his call to care for the environment and the poor.