Pope Francis Bergoglio’s encyclical Laudato Si’ “on care for our common home” is the first SFIK to have an Italian rather than a Latin title. It is also more significantly unusual in being addressed to “every person living on this planet” (§3). So non-Catholics like me are invited to react.
The praise part is easy. It’s a solid exposition of a theology of creation that most Christians and many followers of other faiths would endorse. The application to climate change and the call to action (§169) is clear and excellently timed, in the runup to the critical Paris climate conference in November. At times it transcends mere soundness and achieves prophetic force:
- “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (§11)
- “We can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. … This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (§59)
- “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God…” (§83)
The Pope, channelling Francis of Assisi, condemns the instrumental view of animals of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas:
We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (§67; see also §221)
Thomists get a consolation citation of their hero in §86. We can expect to see more and stronger Catholic condemnations of factory farming.
The encyclical is far from perfect, and I have my little list of complaints, for what they are worth.
Pope Francis needs an editor. Laudato Si’ is a huge and sprawling sermon on more or less every social and environmental issue you can think of. It includes sections on the digital society (§47), biological and chemical warfare (§57), abortion (§120), work (§124ff), biotechnology (§130ff), “cultural ecology”(§143ff), housing (§152), transport (§153), and Sunday rest (§237). He even finds space to attack water privatisation (§30) and air-conditioning (§55), and endorse the Brazilian nationalist canard of a gringo plot to internationalize the Amazon (§38). It’s a fair bet that nobody who doesn’t have to will read or take notice of these. The Pope is rightly concerned with alienation and modern city life: doesn’t that deserve its own separate treatment?
In a text addressed explicitly to non-Catholics, it would have been nice to see more recognition of their traditions and work on these issues. Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew gets a shout-out (§§8-9), but not the largely Protestant World Council of Churches, which has been working in the area since 1983, nor the Dalai Lama.
The main problems relate to the cultural diagnosis. This is an assemblage of every modish critique since 1968: the “technocratic paradigm” (§106ff), “relativism” (§§122-123), “consumerism” (§§144, 203, 209, 219), “instant gratification” (§162). There is clearly something in these concepts. But these are phrases dreamt up by cultural critics of social trends, not well-defined ideologies like Marxism, utilitarianism or neoliberal economics. It needs more evidence to convince me that these constructs are really the false gods of the age. I see three particular points of weakness.
Pope Francis does say something specific about this in §106, but it’s wrong:
This [technocratic] paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation.
This certainly fits Francis Bacon, who was as dominionist as they come in his experimental project. But much science, including the paradigm one of the celestial mechanics of Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Laplace, is non-experimental – and necessarily non-manipulative. So was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. (Darwin as a man was an exemplar of respect for the natural world he wondered at and helped us to understand more deeply.) So is climate science today.
Francis missed an opening here to attack the current pressures on science to be “relevant” at all costs, which means serving capitalist business. Understanding the world of nature should be an act of love, not of rape.
Another problem here is that the encyclical endorses the standard economic theory of externalities and the “polluter pays” principle (§195). But a full scheme of externality-correcting environmental taxes is as technocratic as you can get. The Paris climate deal, if there is one, will be technocracy in action. Businessmen by and large don’t have the math to be technocrats.
The many gripes about “consumerism” are reminiscent of 1968 radicalism, Marcuse and so on. There is a grain or three of truth: modern capitalism generates or reinforces social and psychological pressures to consume stuff we don’t much need, reinforced by a barrage of advertising and corporate fellow-travellers like fashion magazines. They do lead a good many into expensive debt, and a few into shopping addiction. But the full theory, that corporations can bring desires for products into being, is a self-serving fantasy of the advertising trade. If an alien were to infer our preference maps from a sample of TV advertising, it would conclude we are obsessed by washing powders, deodorants and shampoos, and aphrodisiac coffee. The distribution of advertising has little to do with the pattern of consumer spending – look how much we spend on housing and college education, hardly advertised at all.
My main objection however is not that this is woolly, poorly supported and outdated pop social science: it’s that it fails to take the radical doctrines of poverty of St Francis and Jesus of Nazareth seriously. When Francesco di Bernardone stripped himself naked in front of his father in the centre of Assisi, throwing back the nice clothes his rich father had provided him with, was he merely accusing Papa of false consciousness? I think not. The reasons we have for wanting material possessions are serious and deep-rooted. We want a bigger house so the children can each sleep in their own room. We want a car so we can get to work and the shops without exhausting ourselves. The children want smartphones so they can keep in touch with their friends. You want a hi-fi so you can listen to great music. A nobleman wants nice clothes to cement his status. Oh, and the Vatican hospital wants air-conditioning to keep patients comfortable, and its offices want air-conditioning so the Curia and is assistants can work effectively and with dignity.
The challenge of Francis and Jesus is to live without all this. The great majority of us cannot. If the Pope is preaching a Franciscan doctrine of radical poverty to the world, this cannot be done by hints. A watered-down version that just tries to make us feel vaguely guilty about buying a new car is not coherent or worthy of respect.
This pope, while far more sensitive to the concerns of women than his predecessors, has not shifted official Catholic doctrine against reproductive rights one iota. So the encyclical brushes away the population question. Unlimited population growth will destroy the environment, at any standard of living. Logically, living in harmony with the creation requires stabilising the human population. Francis will have none of this. In the feeble paragraph 50, he makes the misleading assertion that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. A little is, for a while, but that’s not what we are facing.
The paragraph ends with this mumbling and barely comprehensible concession:
Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.
Meaning? What was needed was a clear statement that limiting family size is a duty, flowing from respect for the creation and other humans in society. Very fortunately, this has happened already everywhere outside parts of Africa. As Hans Rosling puts it, we are already at “peak child.” But even with reproductive ratios of 2, demographic inertia will push the world population to 10 or 11 billion before it levels off. This turns the task of a transition to sustainability from impossible to merely hugely difficult. The Catholic Church has fought this blessed demographic transition every step of the way, as seen in the ACA lawsuits to hamper contraceptive provision under “religious freedom”. It should be giving thanks for it.
To finish with an item of trivia. The Pope want us to stop wasting paper:
… the throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. (§22)
What’s wrong with throwing away paper? It comes from trees grown in managed forests in places like Finland and British Columbia. Overall paper consumption is static, which means it’s declining per capita. There is negligible current pressure from paper on forests, which are busily growing all the time to give us an indefinitely sustainable harvest. There are three ways of dealing with used paper and cardboard: recyling it to make new cardboard boxes in China; burning it for heat; and dumping it in a landfill. The landfill sequesters carbon for as long as it takes the paper to rot, so it’s mildly carbon-negative. The merit of recycling is that it reduces the overall need to cut down Finnish forests, which counts as a benefit, though a very small one. Overall, it’s an absolutely trivial issue, compared even to aluminium cans and metals in batteries. You don’t need technocratic calculus and matrix algebra to see this.