Thursday, June 18, 2015

Laudato Si! Dissension No! Reflections on Sections 1-61


So, the encyclical has been released. I had it copied to Scrivener by about 5:30am and converted it into a Verbum book to make it searchable and a Kindle book for ease of reading on a tablet. (Before you ask, no I won’t be giving out copies of this project. I respect the rights of the Holy See to decide how they will license this work, and when official e-book versions become available I will purchase them).

So far I am impressed by what I have seen. The Pope’s encyclical is well written, expressing itself clearly. What I have read thus far (¶ 1-61) is a discussion of the problems and the need to change attitudes. In doing so, he brings up two major themes—the obligation to take responsibility for how our interaction with the environment affects others and how our interaction with the environment uses or abuses God’s creation.

The Authority of the Encyclical

First of all, contrary to the denials of the authority of the encyclical, Pope Francis makes clear that this is part of Church teaching, not an opinion. In ¶15, he says:

It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face. (emphasis added)

“[A]dded to the body of the Church’s social teaching” is significant, affirming that it is part of the ordinary magisterium of the Church which requires us to give assent. People who try to deny its authority are being Cafeteria Catholics. Like it or not, Catholics have to think about taking responsibility for the actions that affect us. Sure, there may be different ways to carry out the Church teaching and some disagreements on what is the best way to do what we are required to do, but we do not have the right to say “X is OK” when the Church says “X is wrong."

The Encyclical and the Preemptive Ideological Rejections

Let’s start by responding to the major ideological challenge to Laudato Si that I’ve seen on Facebook and forums for the past few weeks. Does Pope Francis accept climate change as a given? Short answer, yes. Longer answer, yes in the sense that he acknowledges that human action is being added on top of the natural climate changes. I suspect ideological readers will stop at the short answer and rush off to praise or lambaste the Pope. That’s a pity though. His discussion here is on the fact that the environment involves many complex interactions where changes can have unexpected effects. He indicates that while we cannot control the natural changes in climate, we are responsible for what we do. So, if our pollution has an effect on the weather, we have to take responsibility for that effect.

The next question is, do Catholics have to believe in global warming? Short answer, no. Long answer, hell no. This is about the responsibility to care for the environment in the sense of “God’s gift of stewardship requires responsible, not inconsiderate use."

Pope Francis had said in the lead up to the release that this encyclical will challenge everyone. He has things to say that will force changes in thinking by both conservatives and liberals. Remember all the Facebook quotes that said “Why doesn’t the Pope write on moral issues instead of the environment?” Well as it turns out, he does both. As we will see, he has some strong things to say on moral issues that reject the modern view of gender identity and rights.

But in short, the anti-Francis comments that have been building up are calumny, and are not justified. There is no heresy, no junk science, no ideology here. What we see here has been discussed by past Popes about our moral obligations in what we do and how they affect others.

Themes In the Encyclical 1-61

One of the major things that struck me about this section of the encyclical was the making clear of different areas of responsibility. He does acknowledge [¶23-24] that there are natural events that can impact the environment, for example, volcanoes. But he makes clear that our responsibility is for the part of climate change that we cause, not the parts caused by nature. I find that significant because it counters the polemics that claim that we cannot control changes in climate—no, we can’t control what is natural, but not everything involved is natural. 

Indeed, later on [¶59], he will speak about people who argue that the issues of the environment are “unclear,” using that claim as an excuse to avoid changing behavior—and the morality of our behavior is a a major part of the encyclical.

The problems with the human impact on the environment is that it affects a wide range of nature and this wide range is interrelated. This means that the human actions have a cumulative effect [¶24]. But in doing so, he does not start with a “hippy dippy” approach about it. He starts with the poor and how they are the most affected by the abuse of the environment as short-sighted policies can disrupt the ecosystem. They depend on the land and the waters far more directly than those in wealthier nations. Pollution in the waters affect the agriculture, fishing and drinking water, for example. Weather disasters impact them more and what might seem minor in a developed country can prove ruinous in poorer ones. He points out that the short-sighted use of the environment impacts the poor and we must keep them in mind in how we use the resources of an area.

Section 25-43 deals largely with discussing our obligations to consider the consequences of our actions—not just by waste, but in how we try to fix things. Often times, the poor get hurt by both the ecological damage and attempts to repair the damage that do not take human beings into account. That’s right, the Pope is aware that one can go too far in both directions.

In Section 60, he points out that two extremes must be rejected—the view that technology will eventually solve the problem and the view that human beings are parasites:

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.

For example, contra the accusations that he will support population control, he explicitly rejects this as a valid option (¶50). In fact, he calls the attempts at population control to be nothing more than an attempt to avoid changing behaviors by wealthier nations:

To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is 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, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

The Pope finishes Chapter 1 by saying that the Church does not intend to offer opinions on matters that must be explored by experts (contra the allegation that the Church will get involved in ruling on science), but considers it obvious that damage is being done, even if there is dispute on the how and why. Ultimately, this encyclical is about our relationship to God, neighbor and Creation—which in chapter II he will distinguish against “nature."

I am really impressed thus far, and I will keep delving into it and give my thoughts as I go. I recommend that the reader doesn’t get bogged down by the media claims and ideological Catholic blogs with an axe to grind against the Pope. The Pope isn’t advocating the ridiculous new age environmentalism people accuse him of. This is solidly Catholic.

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