Some Observations from Ground Zero of Hagan Ilo

"Don't do it," I hear you telling me.  "You don't want to be That Guy," you wisely suggest.  "Everyone has praised the Pope's new encyclical.  The only people who have a problem with Laudato Si' are Republican Presidential candidates and Rorate-Caeli readers.  Do you want to be lumped in with that lot?"

You're right, you're right.  I shouldn't do it.

But. . . I have ambivalent feelings about Laudato Si'.  I'm not sure if this encyclical will, in the long run, be a good thing for the Catholic Church.  In fact, I think the encyclical is, in some dimensions, a step backward.  There, I said it.

Let's talk first about the substance of the encyclical, and then move to my bigger concern, which is the philosophical and ecclesiastical vision that informs the way the encyclical approaches and presents that substance.

On the substance, everyone is focusing on climate change part, where he says that human activity is leading to global warming and we need to do something about it.  He does say that, but I don't think that's the really striking part of the encyclical.  Ultimately, Laudato Si' is an economic encyclical, providing specific and aggressive guidance on how to restructure the world economy in reaction to climate change.  Despite protestations that the Church isn't in the business of endorsing specific policy proposals, there sure are some targeted statements in the encyclical.

Consider paragraph 129 (which, for those that haven't read it, is about half-way through this very long document).  Paragraph 129 comes at the end of a section entitled "the need to protect employment."  The dignity of labor is an idea that has a long pedigree in Catholic social teaching--Rerum Novarum talks about it, John Paul II's encyclicals frequently talk about it.  But paragraph 129 puts a point on it that I have not seen before in any official Catholic teachings.

In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. 

That seems to be a mandate for an extremely aggressive anti-trust regime, based on the notion that being big is inherently problematic.  To put it in concrete terms, the Pope seems to be saying that the U.S. government needs to make sure that Monsanto can't drive local farmers out of the markets it enters.  How?  It seems to me the only way is to basically force  Monsanto, and every business in every industry that is remotely Monsanto-like, to cease to exist (via "clear and firm measures" which they "have the right and duty to adopt").  I don't know what else you can do to accomplish this vision.

Or, in paragraph 171, it says:

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. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.

Is that true?  I have no idea.  But it certainly seems that carbon credit schemes are not self-evidently wicked, and in any event this is pretty deep into the weeds of operational policy proposals.

Now, look.  I'm a big ol' lefty, so I am not opposed to these ideas on principle.  But that's a big sell for a lot of folks.  And the problem with big sells like this is, if it is (or is seen as) beyond the realm of possibility, then it is easy to write off.  These sorts of big, sweeping proposals can be chalked up as aspirational, and then in turn ignored.  Whereas a smaller sell might get a more reasonable hearing.  If the goal is to try to convince otherwise skeptical free-market folks, I think a more modest approach might have been more effective.

[Sidebar:  Elizabeth Bruenig mentioned on Twitter that she thought this encyclical might sway conservatives because it has voluminous quotes from Popes John Paul and Benedict.  I love Elizabeth, but that's crazy talk--this encyclical has to be far worse than they were expecting]

This points to my bigger concerns about the encyclical, which are more philosophical.

Ross Douthat had a thoughtful column on Sunday, where he describes the tone of the encyclical as "catastrophic."  By decrying not just climate change, but basically all of the mainstream solutions that have been offered for addressing climate change, Pope Francis is staking out a position that only radical solutions are sufficient to stave off apocalyptic outcomes.  Douthat suggests that maybe the tone is a kind of shock therapy, designed to jolt us out of complacency regarding these issues.  That's fine so far as it goes, but that's not how I read the encyclical (nor, to be fair, do I think Douthat reads it that way).  I think Pope Francis believes that revolution is necessary to fix these problems.  Maybe I am naive and maybe I am one of those "dynamists" Douthat talks about, but I am just not sure things are as bad as Pope Francis is making it out to be.

Douthat also points out the elephant in the room for the Catholic Church on the environment, which is heightened by the Pope's catastrophic tone.  If the end goal is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels and other environment-destroying products of human life, the most direct way to accomplish this is to reduce the number of people on Earth.  Which means population control, which means contraception.  The encyclical's retort to that, which is that suggestions of population control are ways for rich countries to avoid dealing with the economic issues, misses the point.  If things are really as bad as the Pope makes it out, shouldn't we be implementing the Pope's economic suggestions and population control?  How bad it is really if we can and should tie one arm behind our back?

Of course, the encyclical has an answer for that as well, in the form of a lengthy explanation of "integral ecology."  And it is here we get to the heart of my unease with Laudato Si'.  Once again, we have a long document from the Vatican that purports to give a comprehensive treatment of a complicated and contentious topic.  We have an extended exegesis of Biblical texts, pitched as being the proper way to understand these passages.  We have a new, comprehensive philosophical framework that comes to us fully formed, presented as if it is a truism and always a part of Catholic thinking from the beginning.  We have claims that everything connects to everything else in a comprehensive, indivisible whole, summed up neatly by a sentence in paragraph 120--"Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion."

Many commentators have noted the reliance on quotations from Popes John Paul II and Benedict.  That is true, and instructive.  While the points of emphasis are different, and in key ways Laudato Si' goes further than the encyclicals from his predecessors, like John Paul and Benedict, Pope Francis's encyclical reflects the world view in which the job of the Pope is to say everything that can be said about every topic which impacts Catholic life anywhere where there are Catholics.  And, since Catholics are everywhere and everything could affect the lives of these Catholics, the Pope should thus say everything about everything.  It is a total, and totalizing, vision of Catholicism and the Papacy.

There was a very interesting piece in America magazine this week from Fr. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J.  In it, he argues that we need to understand the First Vatican Council ("Vatican I") as part of the broader movement in Catholicism that defined the entirety of the 19th Century and lasted up at least until Vatican II.  From the time of Constantine until the French Revolution, the Papacy exercised power in large part via its status as a political actor in relationship to other political actors. The general notion was that this political power protected the independence of the Papacy from being dominated by other political actors.  And there was good evidence for this thesis--look at the Byzantine Empire, the Avignon period of the Papacy, and Henry VIII, etc.

Be that as it may, Napoleon basically represented the end of the viability of that model, and as von Arx pointed out there was real concern that the Papacy would cease to exist as a viable institution.  Obviously that didn't happen, and it reinvented itself with the help of modern communications and transportation technology into a kind of universal virtual pastor.  As von Arx chronicles, it was only in the 19th Century that the Papacy attempted to directly insert itself into the day-to-day affairs of all corners of the Catholic Church, implementing standardized devotional practices and operational procedures.  And, of course, standardized social teachings, beginning with Rerum Novarum in the 1890s.

The question, implied but unstated by the article, is whether these 19th Century innovations are (1) positive ones in total; and/or (more importantly) (2) still sensible in 2015.  Pope Francis talks a big game about decentralization.  But nothing about Laudato Si' suggests a move away from a vision of an omnipresent Papal presence (and, no, throwing in some quotes from national bishops' conferences does not make this a decentralizing trend, because everything is still about the Center).  This encyclical is, in terms of ecclesiology, fully and completely ultramontanist.

You might argue that the global nature of the environmental crisis requires a centralized, unified voice and response.  Fair enough.  But even granting that point, it doesn't justify the insistence on yet another Grand Unified Theory.  I mean:

The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it”

(Paragraph 155).  Put aside the fact that this is clearly yet another call-out to the official moral panic of 2015, "gender ideology."  (*Sigh*--check out a great piece by Bill Lindsay on this topic).  That's just really, really tenuous on its face.  You can't truly respect the environment if you don't subscribe to a particular understanding of gender roles?  Why?  Because everything is connected to everything, and we are right about everything, and all of it is a seamless garment that you must accept in toto.

Call this my crypto-Anglicanism (or, as my friend Fr. Justin insisted in an email to me, my crypto-Orthodoxy) if you want, but I think all of these Grand Unified Theories of human life are trying to prove too much.  Encyclicals like this present you with a completely binary choice.  They are pitched from the point of view that "we, the Catholic Church, are right about everything we talk about (which, as we have seen, is everything), and every piece of it is integral to everything else, so you must accept every single bit of it."  It follows, then, if you don't accept a particular piece, no matter how small, the only option--as presented by the Church itself--is to reject the whole thing.  So, if I don't think this particular vision of gender roles is correct and appropriate, the encyclical itself is telling me to reject all the rest of what it says.

Whereas if Pope Francis just said, "hey, climate change is bad and you need to do your part to try to stop it, and here are some concrete proposals," everyone who is convinced of those arguments can jump on board.  There is enormous symbolic power in the Pope simply embracing the idea that climate change is a partially or mostly man-made phenomenon.  He didn't need to get into any of this other stuff.  It's OK to break things into pieces and address the question in front of you without fully articulating how it meshes with every other question one could possibly ask.  All this does is provide reasons for people who would otherwise listen to what the Pope has to say to ignore him.

In a sense, cafeteria Catholics are trying to give the Church a benefit of the doubt that the Church is not seeking.  The Church pitches its teachings as an indivisible whole that one must accept or reject.  The vast majority people find at least something in there that they struggle with or can't accept.  On the terms presented by the Church, their only option is to walk away.  But people don't, and instead try to find ways to make it work despite being told that it is "my way or the highway."  In a sense, being willing to continue to dine at the cafeteria is a sign of faithfulness, not unfaithfulness; it's a commitment to staying and trying to work through some way to be in the Church when the Church is taking away your options.

Anyway, one thing is clear from the reaction to this encyclical--I am in the minority on this one, even (or especially) among so called "liberal" Catholics.  There is just as much enthusiasm from the Catholic "left" for Catholic Grand Unified Theories as there was from the Catholic "right" when John Paul II was pushing Evangelium Vitae in the 90s.; left wing Catholics are just as eager as the EWTN crowd to sign on to an ultramontanist vision of the Papacy, as long as the basic content of the message fits in to their broader world-view.  In a sense, that's a good sign for the Church--everyone is on board with the Pope saying everything about everything, and differ only on the content (or, even, the points of emphasis in the content).  But the whole thing leaves me uneasy--a liberal absolute monarch with a totalizing world view may be better than a conservative one, but maybe we should ease off on the absolute and totalizing part, you know?

I guess my basic point is this.  Andrew Sullivan proposed the image of Pope Francis as an untier of knots.  Previous Popes, in an effort to establish their authority, had woven these complex doctrinal and theological tapestries, which in time had become knotted.  As Sullivan notes, you can't force these knots to untie themselves, you have to patiently work your way through each one.  But you also can't keep making the string longer and longer on one end as you do your untying on the other--that is just going to lead to more knots which you eventually are going to have to untie.

I feel like Laudato Si' is just adding more and more string.  However well-intentioned and heartfelt the things that Francis is saying here are, I worry that it is going to become yet another set of doctrinal handcuffs that some later Pope or theologians are going to have to work their way out from underneath.  Or, perhaps more likely, this encyclical will produce another set of philosophical terms to argue about and with which to try to beat each other over the head.

Please don't misunderstand me.  There are lots of good things in Laudato Si'.  The reflection on Saint Francis as a model for, and a critique of, modern (especially Western) people is brilliant and trenchant.  The positive reaction to the encyclical may generate some movement on climate change issues internationally and in the U.S., which is all to the good.  It shouldn't be important or notable when a Christian religious leader endorses science, but in fact it is, and again it is all to the good.

But I think these good things are in real danger of getting buried under the weight of the volume of doctrine in this encyclical.  Maybe we already have enough doctrine; maybe we have too much doctrine.  Maybe we should just stop.


jim said…
I think da' Pope might have been on to something, but failed to think it through...

1. There is a distinct probability that the human race will face complete extinction in the next 1000 years. There are a number of possible causes for this extinction, global climate change being one of them. Other likely candidates: mass epidemics (see Outbreak), mass crop failure (see Interstellar), asteroid (see Armageddon, Deep Impact... on second thought, just watch Armageddon twice]), nuclear war, etc. etc.
2. No matter what efforts are taken, the human race will be helpless to prevent some of these possibilities.
3. According to Catholic doctrine, humankind was created in God's image. Therefore, to allow the human race to go extinction, either through the commission of some act or the negligent omission of preventative measures, would be an affront to God.
4. The Catholic Church is uniquely positioned as an institution with significant material resources, established longevity, a command hierarchy and, among religious institutions, a relatively science-positive viewpoint.

Accordingly, it is abundantly clear that the Catholic Church needs to invest a significant portion of its proceeds worldwide into a multi-decade long campaign to significantly advance space and interplanetary travel research and development. The end goal would be to colonize suitable exoplanets. These colonies would serve as galactic genetic safety deposit boxes, helping to ensure that God's chosen species remains extant. I figure 30-40% of the Church's revenues over the next 80-120 years would give humans the best chance of this type of travel.

Mikey- I suggest you run for Pope on the Galactic Papacy platform outlined above.

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