Catholicism

Catholicism and Libertarianism

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If there is one thing that the 2016 Presidential election taught me, it’s that, as a Catholic, I feel politically homeless.  As our two party system continues to become more polar, Catholics often straddle the line between the two in a gray area where neither party truly represents them.  Personally, I’ve always leaned to the conservative side of the spectrum, but I found myself losing faith in supposedly conservative political entities.  It is a sinking feeling to come to all of these realizations, because it feels like the current political structure has de facto placed a sign on its door that says “Catholics Need Not Apply.”  Something started to go missing, and I needed to take some time to reflect in order to put my finger on it.

After gathering my thoughts, and with the political turmoil engulfing the country, I realized that my views weren’t necessarily “conservative.”  Conservative, by its very nature, is a nebulous term, since any major change in law or policy technically changes who is the conservative.  As Hannah Arendt once said, and I’ve probably quoted multiple times throughout the years, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

On this most recent journey of introspection, I found that my views were actually better defined as libertarian.  After that revelation, I also found that both major political parties have essentially abandoned most notions of libertarianism, despite it being the core of this nation’s founding.  As most libertarians would agree, I realized my political leanings were not so much about left and right, but rather state and individual.  What truly surprised me, though, is how much libertarian principles can be seen in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

A.) A CATHOLIC UNDERSTANDING OF INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY

I think most, when asked, would not associate the Catholic Church with libertarianism.  Catholicism often gets associated with some form of strict legalism or moralism.  However, nothing can be further from the truth, and there is a great deal of detailed thought under the misunderstood surface.  Catholicism actually has a great deal to say about the concept of freedom, and this is born from the very root of its understanding of the human person.

The United States of America, from the moment of the Declaration of Independence, prefaced everything on defining the core concept of freedom and rights being innate in human beings.  Everything flows from first laying down that foundation, which was so elegantly laid out centuries ago:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The truth, which is self-evident by virtue of our very nature, is that we are endowed with certain rights.  While the “CREATOR” part can be left out for other debates, it is still important in understanding that rights are innate in our being and, therefore, NOT defined or granted by others.  If they were, then they would not be unalienable and would be rendered meaningless through relativism, since they could be changed or redefined on a whim based upon the views of whoever held power at the time.  Human beings intrinsically have, therefore, a right to freedom in their lives, most notably to pursue the ever elusive idea of happiness.

This freedom provided to us by our unalienable rights is actually at the very heart of the Catholic understanding of the human person through how Catholicism views man’s creation.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.”

“Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” –St. Irenaeus

This is rooted in Biblical teaching in Sirach 15:14, which reads:

When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice.

Again, leaving aside any debate about the existence of God, the Catholic Church clearly teaches man is free and has control over his own actions.  After establishing that mankind has freedom, the Catechism elaborates on it further by defining it:

1731 Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.

This was intended and desired, with man having the ability to freely choose his path in life.  There is, of course, the hope that we will seek the good with that freedom, in which the Catholic Church believes freedom can find its perfection, but if we were forced in that direction we could not then argue that we are free by nature.  Being free, then, leaves open the possibility of making right and wrong choices:

1732 As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.

Although expressed by the notions of good/evil and perfection/sin, this is no different than pointing out that, even though we are free to act, we are not free from the consequences of our actions.  Freedom is a necessity, but the ability to act or not within our will can (and is) abused when used in a way contrary to what is good.

So, there is a great deal in common between what has been expressed in the Catechism about the nature of freedom and libertarianism: man is, by its very nature, a free entity, and man has the natural right to freely act according to his will.  In other words, man has personal autonomy.  It is true that Catholicism takes that and applies it to what we should do with our freedom, but it never abandons the fact that true freedom of action to shape one’s own life, as opposed to force, is the key to our very being.

B.) A CATHOLIC UNDERSTANDING OF RIGHTS AND LAW

The above notions of personal autonomy establish a fundamental understanding of the human person in terms of our innate rights to life and freedom, but the world contains more than just one of us.  We work together, have relationships, and, unfortunately, we sometimes butt heads.  Inevitably, then, the conversation will turn to what role our human institutions and governments have in relation to the freedom of the individual.  Libertarian ideals seek to maximize the amount of personal autonomy and limit government power over the individual, so chief among government’s roles is the protection of our freedoms.  Again, the Catholic Church agrees:

1738 Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect.  The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.

Even with acknowledging the right to exercise our freedom and the necessity of recognizing it and protecting it, Catholicism largely doesn’t give a blueprint on how government should do so.  Different Popes at different times have railed against the wrongs they see in different systems, whether it was St. Pope John Paul II speaking about socialism or Pope Francis warning of the materialism that can come with an idolization of money.  The criticisms are for different reasons, whether it be a lack of protecting the right to exercise our freedom or the abuse of the freedom we do have protected.  Still, some of the greatest Catholic thinkers have pondered the limits of human laws, and there are, again, libertarian overtones when these issues arise.  St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, had the following to say about law and morality:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like…

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Proverbs 30:33): “He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood”; and (Matthew 9:17) that if “new wine,” i.e. precepts of a perfect life, “is put into old bottles,” i.e. into imperfect men, “the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,” i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.

The natural law is a participation in us of the eternal law: while human law falls short of the eternal law. Now Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5): “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence. Nor, if this law does not attempt to do everything, is this a reason why it should be blamed for what it does.” Wherefore, too, human law does not prohibit everything that is forbidden by the natural law.

Limiting the scope of law, particularly when it applies to “victimless crimes,” is an ideal that many libertarians share.  Aquinas pointed out, succinctly, that human law is not designed to make man perfect and that it is also not necessary to legislate all of morality.  In fact, in man’s flawed existence, you couldn’t possibly legislate man into a state of virtue.  So, the real focus of the law should be for the most serious offenses, and should also be further focused on those offenses that harm others.  This is reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s definition of rights and liberty:

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

In essence, if each person is represented by a circle, we form a massive Venn diagram where the equal rights of others intersect.  In those intersecting areas is where you will find the most proper use of law to protect the public from, as Aquinas put it, the most grievous of vices or to adjudicate disputes.

C.) SUBSIDIARITY: A CATHOLIC UNDERSTANDING OF GOVERNMENT’S ROLE

Elaborating on the freedom of the individual and the importance of government to protect that freedom within a limited human law, it should be apparent that the Catholic Church views personal autonomy to be not only important, but integral to the very dignity of the human person.  Therefore, logically, any infringement upon man’s freedom robs him of his dignity, but there are many ways freedom can be attacked.  We often think of clear examples, such as slavery, but there are far more insidious ways freedom can be indirectly extinguished.  One such way is by usurping man’s activities and responsibilities.

Although not called by the name subsidiarity, Pope Leo XIII prepared the foundational principles of the concept in his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum.  Rerum is a direct commentary on socialism and its inevitable effects on man, where Leo XIII defends private property ownership and the importance of man’s labor.  Through that defense, he wrote the following:

The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop.

Forty years later, as the name literally states, the condemnation of a usurpation of man’s actions was expanded further by Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo anno:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.

All of Quadragesimo is a very detailed piece about man and government, written at a time that saw the rise of Nazism and Communism on one hand and the entrenching and expansion of capitalism on the other.  In it, Pope Pius XI also warns against the reduction of all things into the two spheres of the individual and the state, making the case for multiple social units between them.  This includes everything from the family to local governments, non-profit organizations, and corporations.  This hierarchy of social order, between individuals and the State through various social structures that promotes “Industries and Professions” for man to exercise his freedom with others, strikes a balance between statism and complete individualism.  In more clear terms, subsidiarity as a concept presents a strong case for limited government.

Between the two documents, a picture of limited government is painted that places as much focus as possible on the smallest units of social life.  Government’s limited role, then, is only to support smaller units in those functions that they cannot handle on their own.  To take away a smaller social unit’s function is to rob the individuals of their usefulness and dignity.

The commitment to the concept of subsidiarity didn’t end there, as St. Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus annus on the 100th anniversary of Rerum.  The position remained the same, notably:

In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called “Welfare State”. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

The principle of subsidiarity has had a large effect on institutions outside of the Church as well.  The European Union uses subsidiarity as a core concept in its functionality as a governing body.  Also, the United Nations has even noted its usefulness, stating in its Development Programme’s 1999 report:

Decentralization, or decentralising governance, refers to the restructuring or reorganisation of authority so that there is a system of co-responsibility between institutions of governance at the central, regional and local levels according to the principle of subsidiarity, thus increasing the overall quality and effectiveness of the system of governance, while increasing the authority and capacities of sub-national levels.

Many libertarians hold that self-governance is an important principle, and subsidiarity is largely a parallel concept that guides how limited a government should be with its responsibilities.  It by no means ends with Papal encyclicals, either.  Many great Catholic writers and thinkers, from G.K. Chesterton to Dorothy Day, have added their thoughts on the matter.  Unfortunately, even amongst modern Catholics, the idea of subsidiarity is not discussed much, but hopefully that will change as we continue to live under an ever-expanding bureaucracy.

D.) CATHOLIC LIBERTARIANISM

It is, of course, difficult to reduce 2,000 years of thought into a single essay on the subject of man’s nature and social interactions.  However, what should emerge, from examining specifics, is that the Catholic Church does share many core values and teachings with the principles of libertarianism.  Both see the individual as a free entity, both see the government’s chief responsibility as the protection of those individual freedoms, and both desire that the protection of that freedom arises from a limited government that leaves man able to best express and utilize his freedom.

Libertarianism is a large umbrella with a diverse people underneath it, and although there may be disagreement on moral principles in the end, Catholicism undeniably agrees on the value of freedom to pursue the truth through man’s own rational thought as a means.  Many issues today are best left to that realm, through discussions between human beings in a more broadly social context rather than by the force of law.  Evangelization, at the end of the day, is based on that principle.  No one is mandated to be a Catholic, but Catholics believe we are to help others seek truth.  Whether it is a religious issue or a broader social discussion, reaching out to people on a personal level about what you believe and finding the truth toegether can only be truly preserved in a society where men are free to search themselves in order to decide on their own.  Catholics and other libertarians may disagree on where ultimate truth resides, but both support the mechanisms of freedom that allow us to have that conversation.

As a Catholic, I have come to the conclusion that I need to follow my conscious on the principles of the condition of the human person, on the law, and on the concept of subsidiarity in the greater context of Catholic social teaching.  I’m not sure that the current two party system presents an option for those ideals, nor could a binary system ever accomplish that.  In the end it is, of course, up to the individual, but I think the time is right for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to stop being politically homeless and search for another option that fits them more closely.  Considering what Catholicism has taught, and seeing how it is written on the very heart of the United States in its founding principles, perhaps libertarianism can provide the roof Catholics have been missing for so long within our political system.  I think the time is right for many groups of people, including Catholics, to start building their own custom homes rather than accepting the two cookie-cutter models.

Laudato Si, Carbon Dioxide as Pollution, and Moral Pitfalls

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?