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Pope Francis’s New Encyclical Isn’t What You Think


After months of speculation, Pope Francis’ new encyclical (“Laudato Si”) has at last been released. As a Roman Catholic and a climate skeptic, I quite enjoyed reading it, and found much in it to appreciate and admire.

Pope Francis as Anti-Progressive

Predictably, liberal publications and strident Vatican bullies will seize any opportunity to bullwhip their political opponents in the name of the pope. Lest I misrepresent, let me clarify from the outset that Pope Francis is not a climate skeptic. He definitely believes that excess carbon emissions are driving us towards ecological disaster. (More on that below.)

Having said that, it’s very misleading to refer to “Laudato Si” as “the climate change encyclical.” Climate change is one of a variety of environmental problems with which the pontiff is concerned, but even his general interest in the environment is embedded within a broader critique of modernity. Warning us of “the globalization of the technocratic paradigm,” Francis calls attention to the many ways in which the modern world alienates us from the most authentic and fundamental goods: nature, family, community, ourselves. Most important of all, in his view, we have become alienated from God, the creator of all good things.

Having lost the ability to appreciate the value of things as such, modern people become obsessed with narrow material goals and end up instrumentalizing natural goods (especially humans) in the pursuit of these, when our priorities ought to run the other way.  We become obsessed with money, or with technological or political power, and end up sacrificing beauty, happiness, and meaningful human relationships in our relentless pursuit of empty, utilitarian goals.

This is the broader arc of Pope Francis’ argument, which is why the encyclical addresses problems ranging from a lack of green space in cities (which denies the urban poor access to natural beauty) to the over-use of technological media (which alienates us from human community).

These might seem like random asides to someone who was expecting a 200-page diatribe against climate deniers. But it makes sense in the context of the pope’s actual concerns. He wants us to appreciate how political, economic, and technological rarification, along with a general disregard for the normativity of nature, have distanced us from the things that truly matter. In this sense, “Laudato Si” is a powerfully anti-progressive document, more akin to Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” (or even, as R.R. Reno argues, Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors”) than to anything you would hear from Richard Dawkins or Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Pope Francis as Christian Conservationist

Taking its name from St. Francis’ beautiful Canticle of the Sun (best known to many Americans through the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King”), the encyclical lays out some basic precepts of a Christian understanding of stewardship. It’s a mistake, the pope warns, to see nature as a mere possession, to be used as we see fit. But neither are we its subsidiaries (to be eliminated for its preservation). The natural world should be embraced as our “sister” insofar as we share a common creator. But because humans are uniquely blessed with rational powers, we might also see nature both as a divine gift, and also as a responsibility. We may use it in various ways to enhance human life, but we are also called to love and protect nature, both for its own sake and for the sake of our descendants.

The earth is indeed humanity’s common home, and wanton destruction of the environment is an injustice, not only to the earth itself, but also to future generations.

Francis is clear that created beings are not all of equal worth. As Christ points out in the Sermon on the Mount, even the sparrows and lilies are beloved of God; nevertheless, people matter more. Many Catholics were understandably dismayed by the inclusion of prominent population-control advocates in the Vatican’s proceedings prior to the encyclical’s release. They will be pleased to see that population control is condemned at some length, and in no uncertain terms, in the encyclical itself.

It decries the selfish desire to curb birth rates in “an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized.” It’s refreshing to see a diagnosis of the hypocrisy that leads some to champion the natural life cycles of vegetables and flowers, while cheering the active suppression (through contraceptives, sterilization, or abortion) of natural human life cycles.

Obviously the lead-up to the encyclical’s release has occasioned some political in-fighting among conservatives. This is unsurprising, because conservatives have good reason to be suspicious of environmentalism, which can assume many aberrant forms. For some, environment-worship becomes a religion in its own right, as an immature substitute for a true embrace of the natural law. Most of us have at various points had contact with the sort of flaky eco-nuts who actually seem to believe that buying fresh and local, or reducing one’s carbon footprint, are the most virtuous things a person can do. Environmentalism is also frequently used as an excuse for the growth of government, for ill-conceived and prejudiced regulation, and for pork-barreling gifts to sycophantic Progressive toadies.

In our (justified) anger over these abuses, we shouldn’t lose sight of some basic principles, which the pope has reasonably highlighted in his new work. The earth is indeed humanity’s common home, and wanton destruction of the environment is an injustice, not only to the earth itself, but also to future generations. We can reasonably debate the extent to which the market naturally corrects for environmental harms, but we should at least agree that robbing our descendants of an inhabitable home is wrong, in much the same way that ballooning debt and unsustainable entitlement programs are wrong.

Some have suggested that “Laudato Si” is a bit unbalanced in that it refers to the natural world as our “sister” in creation, but ignores the equally true fact that this “sister” can be quite menacing, and sometimes tries to kill us. This is a reasonable point. It’s also true that Pope Francis is characteristically skeptical about the upsides of free markets, while dwelling quite a bit on the downsides (a point I have addressed before). Despite that, the encyclical as a whole makes no real pretense of evaluating the trade-offs between environmental and economic goods. Rather, it presents some principles to help Christians think about the goods of creation, how they should be valued, and how modernity can cause us to lose sight of that value.

Pope Francis as Crusading Environmentalist?

But what about climate change? It does at least come up, right? How does that sit with climate skeptics like me?

I doubt almost anybody will change their views on climate science in response to this encyclical. After all, it really isn’t an argument about climate change per se. Still, it’s an obvious point of contention, so I’ll offer a few thoughts.

The pontiff clearly has high authority to speak (at least to Catholics) on questions of faith and morals, but when it comes to predictive pronouncements on the earth’s climate, he is not a definitive expert.

First of all, when call myself a climate skeptic, that’s exactly what I mean. A term like denier would be too stark, because I don’t dismiss climate change as a non-issue. In fact, I’m reasonably sure it is an issue, because the climate is always changing and humans are perpetually under pressure to adapt to that change. I’m also happy to believe that humans have had an impact on the climate, because it’s an interconnected planet and we’re big-time players within it. It would actually be quite surprising if our level of environmental tinkering didn’t have at least some climate impact. I’m told even butterflies do, and humans are far more consequential than butterflies.

That impact might be significant, and it might well be negative. I’m less than 100% convinced, though, that we’re staring down the barrel of a climate crisis of apocalyptic proportions. Again, we could be. But as a non-scientist, I’m hobbled by what you might call an “over-determination puzzle.”

Some people firmly believe that we’re careening towards ecological doom, because “scientists have said so.” I mull over the complexity of the global climate, and the mistakes prominent climate scientists have already made, and the rather strong incentives those people have for perpetuating panic for as long as possible (their careers and social status will be in shambles if climate science is discredited), and the hypnotic attraction that doom-and-gloom narratives hold for a dispirited general public, and I think… well, it’s possible. But I’m not convinced.

I don’t suppose climate science is an out-and-out hoax, but it could be substantially overdrawn. Scientists aren’t the oracles of objectivity people sometimes imagine them to be, especially when we’re dealing with a heavily politicized and predictive science that isn’t subject to the usual constraints of falsifiability.

Pope Francis doesn’t agree. I respectfully enter that data point into my reflections. But, reading over his encyclical, I don’t feel great angst on the issue. For one thing, this is clearly a prudential question, and not one on which the Catholic tradition has much direct bearing. The pontiff clearly has high authority to speak (at least to Catholics) on questions of faith and morals, but when it comes to predictive pronouncements on the earth’s climate, he is not a definitive expert. Nor does he claim that mantle in “Laudato Si.” His warnings about the climate are just one component of a larger argument which is philosophical and spiritual in nature.

In this way, “Laudato Si” really does help to clarify why the pope is so prepared to believe in impending ecological disaster. To Francis, it seems credible that “the technocratic paradigm” he laments would have brought us to the brink of catastrophic destruction. The modern world is losing sight of the natural law, and of those basic principles of justice that have anchored Western societies for millennia. The killing of the unborn, destruction of natural beauty, and neglect of the poor are all, to his eyes, symptoms of the same larger problem. Even if they don’t assess the symptoms in exactly the same way, American conservatives should easily sympathize with the pope’s foreboding sense that the Progressive disregard for nature is pushing us towards some dark horizons.

I’d be happy to endure a little abuse over climate change if I thought the pope’s Progressive admirers would attentively read “Laudato Si” all the way through. That’s probably too much to expect, but conservatives should see the pope’s encyclical as an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the value of the natural world, and more broadly, on the ever-pressing need to find adequate responses to the dehumanizing pressures of the modern world.