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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Laudate Si

The first several sections of Laudate Si open with indisputable truths - we are made from the elements of the earth, and, because we are sinners, we have not treated God's gift of the earth well.  Pope Francis' quote from Patriarch Bartholomew is important on a number of levels: one, it is unusual for a Pope to quote an Ecumenical Patriarch so prominently in an encyclical, second the quote chosen is one which emphasizes the supernatural character of man.
Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”
As I've pointed out elsewhere, in order for man to be considered a creature who can disfigure or destroy creation, we must first acknowledge that man is not natural. He is supernatural. We don't refer to the lion-gnawed bones of a gazelle on the plains of the Serengeti as "trash" nor complain about the way bird nests foul the trees. Both are seen as part of nature. Similarly, we don't complain about the chemical pollutants and poisons produced by oak trees to kill nearby grass or of the poisons produced by fungi and bacteria. Those are understood to be natural.

If mankind were purely natural, we could not complain about the technology or chemical effluents he produced either. The very fact that we see man's products as being somehow "unnatural" indicates that we all actually consider mankind to be outside of nature - supernatural. What is touched by the hand of God is miraculous. What is produced by the hand of man, God's image, is considered by all men to be of a like nature - miraculous, a product of something greater than nature. To say that something is "artificial" is to say that it is created by "artifice" - by man's supernatural hand.

America is the subject of the Carly Simon song. We are so vain, we think everything is about us. It isn't. The encyclical is written to the world, not just to the United States. Industrialization and its negative effects are not an American problem. Indeed, one could make a strong argument that this entire encyclical is targeting Asia, specifically, communist China and its satellites.

Communist countries are renowned for the ecological disaster they wreak upon their environments. Precisely because communism is atheistic, it exploits and destroys the natural ecology of the areas it inhabits to a degree that is astounding to behold. Indeed, article 21 is virtually a laundry list of complaints about these industrial areas.
But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.
Americans try to wring every last dollar out of a production cycle. As any businessman knows, it is more profitable to sell the "waste" products you don't know how to use to someone who does know how to use them than it is to throw them away. You can't use them, but someone else can, and they will pay. Precisely because the American economic system rewards the man who can make those kinds of connections, American production cycles tend to be much more "closed circle" than those of other countries. That's why our economy tends to be much more robust. Far from being a critique of America, this article can be seen as praise for American processes that don't conform to the negative stereotype.

It is important to realize that an encyclical may contain infallible teachings but not everything in an encyclical is an infallible pronouncement. Just as the Pope is the Pope, regardless of whether he travels to your house in the Popemobile or a VW Beetle, so an infallible truth is true regardless of what teaching instrument it arrives in. But, by the same token, the Popemobile is not the Pope, and an encyclical is not, by itself, necessarily correct in every aspect. This is the spirit with which we can approach statements about global warming.

Neither Scripture nor the ancient liturgies nor the Fathers and Doctors of the Church say anything about global warming. They DO speak of the requirement we have to respect the gifts of God. That we must do this is a point of Catholic doctrine. How best to do this is a prudential matter, not a subject of doctrine.

So, let us examine what the Pope has to say about global warming. As Mark Twain would say, in general, he's against it. The Pope mentions "carbon" in exactly six articles (#23-26, 140, 171) of the entire encyclical, an encyclical which spans 246 individual articles. That's less than 2% of what the encyclical has to say. Focusing on 2% while ignoring 98% of the encyclical hardly seems productive. But that is what everyone has been talking about.

No one mentions that the Pope praises the national park system. The first national park in the world was created by the United States. The Pope is implicitly praising the West as a whole and America in particular, but no one takes notice:
37. Some countries have made significant progress in establishing sanctuaries on land and in the oceans where any human intervention is prohibited which might modify their features or alter their original structures.
When considering the top ten largest national parks in the world, America, Britain and Australia comprise 60% of the list, each having two of the ten largest parks. Eight of the top ten largest preserve areas in the world were designated as such by western capitalist countries. Nine of the top ten countries with the largest national parks are predominantly Christian countries. This encyclical is most certainly not targeting the West or the profit motive per se (more on that later). Instead, as can be seen in the very next article, Pope Francis specifically chastises South America and Africa for not imitating the practices of North America and Europe.

The media spend a lot of time hyping the four "global warming" articles, but the papal references to digital pollution and modern media in article 47 have gone wholly unremarked. Similarly, the condemnation of the "tendentious attitudes" (article 49) of the green movement are ignored by the MSM:
49. ...This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
Of course, that is precisely what the "green movement" does not do.  In almost every case, environmental activists are also population control advocates - they see the poor as part of the pollution problem. They would rather save a snail darter than a poor person.

The Pope chastises them in the very next 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.
But notice that he does not ignore the problems caused by larger populations:
53. These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years. 
In 1800, the world population was 1 billion. It is now 7 billion. Obviously, in order to sustain population growth, we do have to consider the problem of efficient resource utilization. Earlier generations could afford to ignore the environment in ways that we simply no longer can.
56. In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.
It is well-known that commodity speculation, in wheat, for example, has driven food prices higher than they would otherwise be. The Holy Father clearly takes issue with transnational corporations that engage in this kind of profit-seeking. But he is just as harsh towards first-world environmentalists:
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. (emphasis added) 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.
Indeed, the Holy Father does not like, at all, the atheistic environmentalist attitude towards the world. They either make the earth nothing more than a tool, or make a god, Gaia, of something that is not divine:
76 ...Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.
78. At the same time, Judaeo-Christian thought demythologized nature. While continuing to admire its grandeur and immensity, it no longer saw nature as divine. In doing so, it emphasizes all the more our human responsibility for nature. 
The Holy Father does, however, point out an incontrovertible fact, a fact that sounds impious to the ears of those unfamiliar with Christian tradition and to those who, whether living in communism or capitalism, pursue material wealth as their god:
93. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.
For those of you upset with this fact, read the writings of St. John Chrysostom and other Church Fathers. But this is not a diatribe against wealth. The Holy Father also acknowledges that this same private property and wealth has created a great deal of beauty:
103. [Technology] can also produce art and enable men and women immersed in the material world to “leap” into the world of beauty. Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper? 
This leads to section II of the encyclical, an extended critique of both the good and bad aspects of technology in modern culture. While the opening section addresses something of a strawman (no one really believes the earth has "infinite resources"), the critique is quite profound, describing why and how "a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony." The problem? We are too self-centered: we put man at the center of everything instead of God.

Articles 117 and 155 are a formidable critique of the contraceptive body dysmorphia culture we celebrate and seek to impose on the Third World. But, at the same time he critiques the technology mindset, the Holy Father praises business and wealth-generation, along with scientists and technologists, even comparing them to artists:
129. ...Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.
131. If an artist cannot be stopped from using his or her creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their God-given talents for the service of others. We need constantly to rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits of this human activity, which is a form of power involving considerable risks. 
The Holy Father recognizes that the green movement is often just a stalking horse intended to destroy the poor. Nor is he a fan of carbon credits:
170. Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of environmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries. Imposing such measures penalizes those countries most in need of development. A further injustice is perpetrated under the guise of protecting the environment. Here also, the poor end up paying the price.
171. The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.
In his praise for "small producers", he praises the businesses that make up the overwhelming majority of Western capitalism:
180. New forms of cooperation and community organization can be encouraged in order to defend the interests of small producers and preserve local ecosystems from destruction. Truly, much can be done!
He hands out a damning critique both of Obama's handling of the recent financial crisis:
189. Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery. 
And of the power elite's general approach to problems:
196. The mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset which lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society. For “the current model, with its emphasis on success and self-reliance, does not appear to favour an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life”
He recommends that we give thanks to God for what we have been given:
227. One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals. I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom. That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.
And partake in the Eucharist, the Self-Gift that should make us of the world that was made by and through Christ for us, His beloved creatures and His beloved brothers and sisters:
236. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world”

188. There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.
The Holy Father explicitly says he does not intend to settle the global warming debate. So why write the encyclical? He wants to start a conversation with hard-core non-believers.

He has taken the current concerns of various neo-materialists (atheistic science) and neo-pagans ("green" environmental whackos), acknowledged that they have some legitimate concerns, and then placed those concerns within the larger context of a Christian solution.

In fact, the entire encyclical is nothing but a contemporary parallel to, commentary on, and re-proclamation of Paul's speech to the pagan Greeks in the Aeropagus, where the Men of Athens are precisely the atheistic materialists, both scientists and environmentalists, who each fail to see God behind the curtain of creation:
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown,this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth,does not live in temples made by man,[c] 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;[d]
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[e]
29 Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17)
Mankind is one. The men and women who worship at the altar of money, who treat the earth as a tool, who treat their fellow man, especially the poor, as a burden to be destroyed, they unquestionably act as badly as they do precisely because they worship false idols. Yet Pope Francis enters the arena with them and begins to discuss with them the unknown God they do recognize, through a glass, darkly - the beauty of creation, the joy of learning to teach it how to enrich our lives, the artistry in discovering its secrets.

God is Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Insofar as even the neo-pagans recognize this in the created universe, they begin a journey towards God. If we are to convert them, we should try to clear away the obstacles to their unbelief by responding to their concerns. This encyclical is a step along that path.

1 comment:

bobef said...

Nice, balanced summary. Thanks for writing this.