Last week saw the newest papal encyclical, Laudato Si, reach our doorsteps (or computer monitors), surrounded by months of buzz and days of speculation following a leaked early release. Encyclicals are important documents, as they guide the Church and its teaching. Nothing about an encyclical makes it infallible teaching on faith and morals simply because it was written by the Pope, but its words can carry considerable weight depending on the context and circumstances. It has been said and confirmed numerous times that this document was supposed to help sway the upcoming UN conference on the subject of climate change, so there is some physical weight to it in the very least.
It pains me to say this, but after reading the document, it has left me more confused than edified. It isn’t because there isn’t solid teaching about stewardship and the interrelationship with nature that comes as a part of human existence, which has always been a part of the Catholic faith, but rather that the picture painted in the document is one that is hard to square with the vision of humanity as I have been taught to see it on very specific grounds.
In the spirit of discussion, which is supposedly encouraged by Laudato Si, I felt at least compelled to explain some of my confusion in the hopes that it will further the conversation. I obviously cannot discuss the entire thing, but I do want to bring up a few points.
A.) DEFINING MERIDIANS
Fr. George W. Rutler wrote an intriguing piece at Crisis Magazine regarding the perils of blending science with moral teaching from the Papal office, noting particularly the debacle of Pope Alexander VI when he attempted to establish a meridian dividing the world between Portugal and Castile as well as the events surrounding Galileo. Later, of particular note, are the statements from Fr. Georges Lemaître, the author of the Big Bang Theory (yes, it was first theorized by a Catholic priest), to the pope:
As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.
He also had this to say to his fellow scientist, Albert Einstein:
The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.
Fr. Lemaître’s statements were beautiful in their simplicity in regards to the intersection of science and religion. Science is, at its core, humanity’s attempt to understand the order inherent in creation. The truth is out there, from the dawn of the universe, as we attempt to discover it, and it doesn’t contradict the very nature of God. However, it stands apart from the questions regarding creation itself and the greater mysteries of the universe. For those issues, the issues that relate to our eternal lives, we have had the truth revealed to us. It’s a stark contrast: the truth is handed to us through revelation and is undeniable when it comes to our faith and morals, yet we are left to discover the wonders of the universe on our own.
The trouble, then, is mixing the divinely immutable with the gradual process of uncovering scientific truth. Although the ultimate truth of science will never change, our understanding of it does frequently as each new piece is discovered. So, there is great peril in elevating any scientific theory towards the level of faith and morals, because the vision of scientific theory is only as good as our modern ability to see.
B.) CAN WE OVERLOOK SPECIFICS?
In an article by George Weigel, he attempts to give meaning to the encyclical with the title “The Pope’s Encyclical, at Heart, Is About Us, Not Trees and Snail Darters.” He goes on to explain, after listing some very specific questions that come to mind:
What does Francis write in this complex and inevitably controversial document that might speak, as a good pastor should, to the flaws in humanity’s understanding of itself today, and that might point us in a more noble direction? A lot, it turns out — if you read Laudato Si’ as an encyclical primarily about us, and not primarily about trees, plankton, and the Tennessee snail darter.
The main thrust is that the encyclical is not really about specific scientific and economics topics, but is really a cultural piece about humanity. In essence, don’t get bogged down by the specifics and concentrate on the general. I could understand this line of thinking (Pope Francis is, in fact, trying to speak of a holistic human ecology that goes beyond just the environment), if it weren’t for the fact that Pope Francis spends so much time and goes into so much detail about very, very specific scientific and economic topics. At least half, if not more, of the 246 paragraphs in Laudato Si arguably address such modern scientific and economic topics. I don’t think we should give those a pass when discussing the entirety of the document as if it is mostly a metaphysical discussion.
Still, I agree that it is “about us” in the end. However, there is a particular thing “about us” that leads to some contradictory points of view.
C.) CONTRADICTION IN APPROACH
Amongst several such cases, there is an apparent contradiction in approach to many of the topics in the encyclical. There are things said with relative certainty, yet are later stated to be open for discussion. Most notably, in paragraph 14, Pope Francis has this to say:
Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.
There are two key concepts here, and they form the basis of much of the thinking throughout: a.) there is a human made crisis, and in this case, it’s environmental, and b.) you are an obstructionist (or a “powerful interest” with ulterior motives) if you do not agree. In fact, you are not only an obstructionist, you may very well be sinning because of it as he quotes Patriarch Bartholomew in Paragraph 8:
For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins.
Part of the problem is defining “environmental crisis.” Pope Francis goes into specifics about what he thinks that entails, which include general pollution (paragraphs 20-22), climate change (paragraphs 23-26), water (paragraphs 27-31), and biodiversity (paragraphs 32-42). One of these four topics, however, is not like the others. Pollution, water quality, and biodiversity are general topics with multiple contributing factors. Climate change, however, is a very specific scientific theory in of itself, and can affect any of the other three topics at hand. It’s also a specific scientific theory that is still up for debate.
Pope Francis ultimately tries to point out that he is not out to settle science in paragraph 61, but still gives the same grave warning throughout:
On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation.
Besides debate about the frequency of natural disasters, I think one ultimately can draw the conclusion from all of this that 1.) there is an environmental crisis, 2.) it is human caused, 3.) part of that crisis is climate change, 4.) you are an obstructionist if you do not agree, 5.) climate change is a sin, and 6.) even though the Church is not going to settle science, the previous statements are predicated on the science being settled. If the science was NOT settled, if debate must still be encouraged by experts, then the label of obstructionist is not appropriate to describe someone with honest disagreements.
It is personally hard to mesh all of this together and it leaves a sense of contradiction. Honest debate, respect divergent views, yet there are “facts” (facts being not up for debate or divergent views) that cannot be disputed. So, the hope isn’t for finding an honest answer to questions revolving around the science stated or finding an appropriate response. The facts are real, and the hope is that you recognize that.
D.) SINGLING IT OUT
I have my disagreements with catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory. I disagree with most of the statements made by Pope Francis in paragraph 23, whether it be the claims of “disturbing warming” or “increase of extreme weather events” or the claim that humans are mainly responsible for the variation in temperatures as of late. But, those are up for debate. I don’t mind debating it, and I’m open to hearing the other side of the discussion. That’s not the reason I’m singling the topic out, though.
I harp on climate change for a reason. General discussions of pollution and water quality inherently have local connotations: because there is pollution in the Amazon River does not necessarily mean there is the same pollution in Lake Erie. They are general in discussion but specific in effect. Dumping a chemical in the water specifically has the result of the chemical generally being present in the water, and that has specific results no matter where it happens. It is labeled pollution for a reason, since we are talking about contaminants in the natural environment, and contaminant connotes an impurity or rendering something unsuitable or unusable. There is also a hint that these activities aren’t inherently necessary and can, hopefully, be eliminated.
Whereas water pollution can mean any number of things depending on the pollutant, climate change is different. Climate change is specific in discussion and specific in effect, and it has global connotations. We are talking specifically about carbon dioxide as a result of human activity, it is aggregate amongst all humans, and it affects the entire world. The main thrust is treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant like any of those nasty chemicals that get dumped into a river. However, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It doesn’t contaminate or make things impure. It is naturally occurring and a part of the carbon cycle. It is plant food. The presence of carbon dioxide does not harm life on this planet, but actually sustains it as plants breathe it in, fix it as biomass, and breathe out oxygen. It is VITAL to life on earth, not something that makes life unsuitable, it’s inherently necessary, and can’t be simply eliminated. It stands in contrast as a part of this discussion, because part of being a pollutant is that it should not be there at all for the sake of the purity of whatever system we are talking about.
Labeling carbon dioxide a pollutant creates an inherent moral dilemma, because humans, by their very existence, produce carbon dioxide. Virtually every economic activity, or any activity for that matter, that humans undertake, from building hospitals to having camp fires to simply breathing, produces carbon dioxide. If carbon dioxide contaminates, then human existence, at the very end of that logic, is toxic to the planet. Particularly because, at the top of the food chain, we only consume and don’t truly produce for anything else.
Even if one only considers it a pollutant above a certain level (which possibly violates the definition of pollutant), and there is a certain threshold or capacity of atmospheric carbon dioxide that we should not pass, then there is a de facto limit on activity that can be undertaken before we hit that limit. We can cut emissions and limit activity as much as we can, and that is considered good under this encyclical as a reduction in greenhouse gasses is the end goal of changing our paradigms of production and consumption (such as eliminating fossil fuels in paragraph 165). However, that is only “sustainable” in a stable population. Each additional person lessens the amount of activity allowed by others and adds to the toxicity that humans bring. If I cut my emissions in half, but have a child who can also maintain the now reduced level I have reached, that has brought us right back to the level we started with (which was declared dangerous and caused me to reduce my activity in the first place).
A good analogy is the weight limit of an elevator. Let’s say an elevator can only hold 2,000 lbs., and 10 people that are 200 lbs. each want to board the elevator. This is dangerous, because you are pushing the operational capacity of the elevator. The 10 people then decide they need to change and get healthy, and each of them loses 50 lbs. Now, totaling 1,500 lbs. between the 10 of them, they can board the elevator without risk and have all become healthier in the process. This is, in essence, what we are being asked to strive for. To become healthier for the sake of the elevator, because we are called to maintain the elevator.
There is a catch, though. What happens when the population changes? What if four more people want to board the elevator? Let’s say that each of these four new people are of the same healthy weight as the other ten. The new total weight is 2,100 lbs., and you are now worse than when you started even though all 14 people are doing what was originally considered healthy and good. Now, each person has to lose over 7 more pounds to get under the weight limit of the elevator, and if they hope to get back to the 1,500 lbs. they were at previously, each person would have to weigh about 107 lbs. instead of 150 lbs. The original 25% reduction in weight now has to be closer to 50% per person to maintain the same level of comfortable safety.
Humans inherently have weight. It’s a part of who they are. They can’t weigh nothing. If we value the elevator system in of itself, and we need the elevator for transportation, then human presence can do nothing other than bring it closer to the tipping point of breakdown if we all need to ride it at once. That, unfortunately, is the exact role of humans when we commoditize ourselves as carbon footprints. There is a limit, and our existence only gets us closer to that limit. We are a burden, literally, and the elevator needs stability to sustainably operate.
E.) POPULATION CONTROL
How, then, can anyone view that picture and not come to the conclusion that controlling the population numbers is a legitimate way to make that system work? If it is true that, in paragraph 23, “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,” there are only two answers to the problem. Either you control activity, or you control the number of active participants. The end goal is “sustainability,” a word used in some form 27 times throughout Laudato Si. Sustainable means being able to maintain something at a certain level. The only way you can maintain emissions at a certain level is by, as I said earlier, stabilizing the population or stabilizing the level of activity regardless of the active members of the population.
Whichever way it goes, the ceiling doesn’t change, only the contributions underneath it. Laudato Si really aims at activity, notably changes in production and consumption. However, unless you can change things to the point where a near endless number of system participants can be supported, you will always inevitably run the risk of eventually hitting the ceiling (albeit slower than before, perhaps).
The reality is, for every percentage point reduction in activity you can muster, you can only add a certain number in population before you are right back where you started. If the 7 billion people on this planet reduced their emissions by 25%, to the point where they impacted the planet as if only 5.25 billion people were here, then you’ll be back to square one by the time there is 9.33 billion people (a number most believe we’ll hit by the middle of this century). Considering people, including Pope Francis, believe we are at the “breaking point” if not even beyond that, as if the carrying capacity of the earth has been well established, then we are in a constant struggle to stave off destruction. How can population control not be considered as a solution to always stay under the ceiling?
Population control stands in contrast to Catholic social teaching and theological issues, which Pope Francis cursorily reaffirms, after already painting the global warming picture, in paragraph 50:
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.
In essence, population growth is fine and the real problem is activity. But then, look at the friends the Church is keeping on this subject. For most environmental groups, population control is the main solution to the problem. If you look at the core beliefs of most environmental groups, I believe you will see population control in some form because, again, human existence is the core problem and the easiest path to sustainability is to maintain numbers. The UN, which the Church is courting and trying to persuade in this effort, has many documented cases and references in terms of its support of population control. It’s not exactly a secret. Just take the recent statements of Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief:
“So is nine billion a forgone conclusion?” Dalton asked. “That’s like baked in, done, no way to change that?”
“We can definitely change those numbers and really should make every effort to change those numbers because we are already, today, already exceeding the planet’s planetary carrying capacity, today,” Figueres responded. “To say nothing of adding more population that is really going to overextend our capacity. So yes we should do everything possible.”
You will find a long list of supporters of population control amongst the advocates of sustainable development. The two go pretty much hand in hand. Yet, the Catholic Church is one of the staunchest opponents of population control, through its messages of protecting life from the earliest stages onward. Whether it be opposing abortion, sterilization, or contraception, the Church has maintained a firm belief in the sanctity of life, and it stands in stark contrast to the very people the Church is now trying to court. Again, it’s a contradiction in terms. We are being taught through this encyclical that human activity, through carbon dioxide, is a pollutant to this planet, but are being told to ignore the solution to it that is readily apparent from that line of thinking. I don’t think you can have both. Yet, there is some form of acknowledgment of both in paragraph 60:
Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.
Should we generate a solution between those two extremes? Is the extreme that human existence is inherently a threat to the planet be something we even want to consider? When you suggest that that is one extreme and we need to find a middle ground, are we to admit that humanity is half of a scourge to the planet? Yet the people of that extreme, or close to that extreme, are those with whom we are now seeking an alliance with in the end. Population control cannot exist along side free demographic growth, so there is a conflict here in Laudato Si. Unless married couples are now supposed to keep carbon footprints in mind as an added dimension to discerning whether they should be open to bringing new life into the world, it’s hard to separate the painting from the paint that is being used.
F.) WE’RE NOT MONSTERS
I agree with the theological core that Pope Francis presents in terms of stewardship and God’s creation, even of a notion of a shared human ecology. There is not much to debate there, and he does a good job at stating the need for stewardship. However, I completely disagree with the polar view that this brand of environmentalism presents, including how it has been framed by Pope Francis.
It is presented that you can fall under one of two categories. You are either a proponent of things like global warming and want to save the environment (since they are conflated together as the same concept), or you are a Captain Planet villain that enjoys dumping toxic waste in the rain forest for no other reason than the fun of it. I, myself, am a conservationist. I think we should do everything within our power to conduct our lives in accord with the natural world, but the natural world should never take precedence over human dignity. So, my life stands in stark contrast to this paradigm of being either A or B. I disagree with global warming, AND I think we need to do a better job of being responsible for our common home. This document ends up making me feel confused and guilty that I am not doing enough. Perhaps I’m not doing enough, but I’d rather that stand on its own with theological backing than be linked to a scientific theory that has the potential of being wrong and/or aligns itself with interests contrary to my faith.
I think my feelings are best summed up by a close look at a Bible verse used in paragraph 96:
In talking with his disciples, Jesus would invite them to recognize the paternal relationship God has with all his creatures. With moving tenderness he would remind them that each one of them is important in God’s eyes: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God” (Lk 12:6).
The call is to see the importance of creation. However, we would do well to look at the very next verse and read them together.
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
I’m sure many will see this as making a mountain out of a molehill by putting too much emphasis on the climate change portion of Laudato Si. However, we are, indeed, worth more than sparrows in the eyes of God. Laudato Si doesn’t make me question being Catholic or make me want to turn my back on the Pope. I’m just afraid that the Church, by going beyond its call for stewardship and into the realm of human toxicity that goes along with much of anthropogenic global warming theory, is aligning itself with the wrong people.
In the end, the question is this: have we bruised God’s creations by our actions, or do all of our actions, by their very nature, bruise God’s creation?