Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Paschal's Wager and the Leaked Encyclical

So the Catholic world was breathless yesterday over the leak of an Italian "draft" ("not the final
version," insisted the Vatican spokesman) of the Pope's much-anticipated (and in some quarters much-dreaded) encyclical on the care of creation. ("The care of creation" is how the encyclical was mentioned by Cardinal O'Malley in his homily Sunday at our Centenary Jubilee Mass.) I have not been able to do much more than glance at the Italian (the leaked document is 172 pages long and I have not been well this week). If I am going to read 172 pages, it will be of the published version and not a leaked one.

The document (as it comes to us, unofficial) is a new expression of the social doctrine of the Church (see n. 15).  One horrified Catholic glumly reported, on the basis of a Google translation of the Italian draft, that the Pope had swallowed climate change "hook, line and sinker." By this, he meant not only that the climate is changing (that is a given), but that humans bear some (or most) of the responsibility for that change. This is something that politically conservative Catholics are especially wary of: The "climate change" mantra is often invoked as justifying drastic population control measures, and does seem quite often to accompany a particularly dismissive attitude toward the human species as a whole. Some go so far as to suggest that the earth would be better off without us: this rightly unnerves Catholics when climate change comes up as a subject.

Pope Francis appears (we are only looking at a draft--and in Italian) to take aim at the anti-human conclusions of those who make man the servant of the environment. He quotes St John Paul on "an authentic human ecology" (an expression that Pope Francis has used more than once in his talks). The draft goes on, "This concerns especially certain significant themes that criss-cross the whole Encyclical. For example: the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet." The Church is concerned not only for Planet Earth in and for itself, but is concerned with Planet Earth for the sake of the people who inhabit it, especially the most defenseless.
 The leaked document cites Benedict XVI on correcting "models of growth that seem incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment" (my translations throughout). "Pope Benedict has recommended that we acknowledge that the natural environment is full of wounds caused by our irresponsible behavior." "Attitudes, even among believers, that obstruct the pathways to a solution go from denial of the problem to indifference, to comfortable resignation or blind trust in technical answers."
The draft addresses the "throwaway culture" and its relationship to pollution. (It is again the poor who bear the heaviest burdens when it comes to pollution: not just the problem of waste disposal and entire communities living on garbage heaps, but health risks associated with things like smoke from cooking over fire, and lack of access to clean water.) In wealthier parts of the world, pollution seems to be an old, largely-resolved story, but it is a still a daily health hazard for most of the children of Adam.

The draft spends dozens of paragraphs describing the problems the environment faces, in terms and with examples that generally coincide with those we find in the fund-raising literature of environmental organizations. The document acknowledges: "On many concrete matters, the Church has no reason to propose a definitive word, and understands that she must listen to and promote honest conversation among the experts, respecting the diversity of opinion." But the Church herself is, in the words of Benedict XVI (himself quoting Paul VI??) "an expert in humanity."

The draft warns against divinizing the earth, "leveling all living beings and taking from the human that unique value that at the same time implies a tremendous responsibility." In the fourth chapter, the document calls for an "integral ecology": environmental, economic and social. That last point becomes the most crucial. Everything is ordered to the human person. Lack of housing, inadequate public space, the dissolution of the natural family. "Human ecology also implies something very profound: the necessary relationship of the life of the human being with the moral law written his in very nature, a relationship that is indispensible for being able to create a more dignified environment."

Whether or to what extent human activity is responsible for some of the environmental changes that we are witnessing (things like the tree line of certain species climbing north as their former habitats become too hot or wet or dry, or changes in plumage and migration for certain birds), it is clear that human activity is to blame for the changes in amphibians and fish subjected to wastewater that retains estrogen from birth control pills. And there is always the warning "follow the money": who stands to gain financially if climate change can be ignored or blamed entirely on the planet itself? Who stands to gain financially (or politically) if the responsibility can be placed tout court on human influence?

Admittedly, I have a powerful personal motivation for desiring to see climate change slow down, if there is anything at all that can be done: my family's roots go back 300 years in one of the most threatened cities on the planet. Some estimates give New Orleans about twenty years before it becomes part of a growing Gulf of Mexico (and shrinking State of Louisiana, which loses a football field's worth of coastland every hour). If there is even a 5% chance that this could be slowed down, I would pray we would take it. Pope Francis writes from a similar point of view: the poor of the world live in the most threatened spots. My family has the resources to pick up and move elsewhere (but where?); that is not even a remote possibility for the poor in the south of the world.

I look at the question of human responsibility for climate change as a kind of Paschal's wager: If humans are responsible for some proportion of climate change, it behooves us to alter what we can in order to preserve the environment. If we are not, what do we lose by attempting to rein in those things that are clearly not good for the environment?

This is a long (draft) document, and one which merits to be read in its entirety--when the official version is released. 


Brian Gill said...

It's good to see a calm, rational, look at this (leaked, preliminary) document.

I've been looking forward to the 'environmental' encyclical for some time: particularly since I was aware of legitimate environmental concerns before Captain Planet aired. ;)

I expect, over the next days - weeks - months - to see conservatives fuming because the Pope is liberal, liberals fuming because the Pope is conservative, and - maybe, just maybe - a few sensible folks who actually read the thing.

I also expect nothing new, in terms of Catholic doctrine. We've been expected to take care of this world since day one: Genesis 1:28-29 outlines our frightening responsibility.

"...Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 339)

Anonymous said...

I hope you will be well enough to read the full encyclical when it officially comes out!

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

That makes two of us!

Sr Anne Flanagan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Amen to that!