Cardinal Wuerl's Talk on Environment

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I wrote about Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s welcoming remarks at a Vatican conference on the environment and sustainability. Later in the day, my colleague Brian Roewe reported on remarks at that same conference made by Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl. The full text of +Wuerl’s remarks can be found here. The conference was an open invitation to business leaders to recognize the opportunities presented by attempts to steward the environment as well as to meet sustainable development goals for the world’s poor.

Cardinal Wuerl’s remarks warrant some reflection in part because they provide a framework for the much anticipated encyclical on the environment, expected to be published next month. The encyclical is not going to venture into uncharted theological waters. The theology that +Wuerl applied to the issue would be completely familiar to anyone who took a course in Catholic Social Teaching because the Church’s focus on the issue of the environment grows out of that same teaching. Anyone who expects the pope to align the Church with extreme environmental movements that seem to hate people will be disappointed. Anyone who sees in Catholic Social Teaching a rich resource for facing the problems we humans encounter – and the problems we humans create – will find themselves swimming in familiar waters. As I noted yesterday, neither Pope Francis nor Cardinal Wuerl is going to start worshipping Gaia. They are going to invite us to think more deeply about Genesis.

+Wuerl noted the three pillars of Catholic Social Teaching that are especially applicable to the environmental crisis we face:

The first principle is the dignity of the human person, whose inherent worth and immortal destiny is the very rationale for environmental action. Economic development has to have as a point of reference the sustainable well being of future generation.

The “inherent worth and immortal destiny” of the human person is not always the rationale for environmental action offered either by the extreme proponents of environmental action, nor by its detractors, two groups that increasingly seem to be singing from the same hymnal. For the rest of us who live in the non-extremist universe, where else would the rationale come from except a concern for the “sustainable well being of future generations” which is presently at risk because of an economy without accountability. From the dumping of toxic wastes in the fishing waters off Somalia, to the deforestation of the Amazon River basin, present, as well as future generations, see their lives imperiled. Whatever economic rights we have – to private property, to a return on investment, etc. – they do not trump the rights of all peoples, including future generations, to enjoy the fruits of the earth.

+Wuerl continued:

The second principle is an emphasis on the moral imperative to protect the natural order. Pollution, desertification, deforestation, water shortages, the forced displacement of whole populations by the depletion of resources, and climate change itself all have had profound effects on the members of our human family, especially the poor, and we cannot sit idly by without attempting to reverse the trend. We are not just bystanders in these decisions that will determine the quality of life for generations to come.

It is a bit ironic that some of the most forceful “prebuttals” of the pope’s encyclical have come from people who normally can be expected to defend the natural order. +Wuerl’s invocation of the need to protect the natural order shows again that the theology we can expect in the encyclical is decidedly traditional and conservative even. Just because we Americans do not recognize the degradation of the earth when we go on holiday to pristine resorts, doesn’t mean it is not happening. And, protecting the natural order trumps the right to private profit and consumerist lifestyles that feed the despoliation of creation.

The cardinal’s words here are important for an additional reason. While much attention will be understandably focused on what the encyclical says about climate change, there are many instances of profound environmental degradation right now that are easily documented. The moral frame the Church brings to addressing those instances is the same it brings to climate change. Note to media. Those who are opposed to this encyclical for whatever reasons will need to be asked: So, you deny anthropogenic climate change, but do you agree with the moral analysis, and the expected calls for governmental action, regarding other types of environmental degradation? If the opposition to the encyclical is simply rooted in Republican Party politics, and/or in those dispositions that seem appropriate to organizations that get a lot of funding from the extraction industries, it is up to us in the press to smoke that fact out and call it for what it is. I am not a fan of the “cui bono?” line of questioning in most debates, but in this one, it seems inescapable and important.

The third principle Cardinal Wuerl articulates is this:

The third principle is, in a sense, the immediate conclusion of the previous two. It is also the theme of this seminar: that protecting the environment need not compromise legitimate economic progress. At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it (Caritas in veritate, n. 50). There is an increasingly clear harmony between efforts on behalf of the environment and those that promote integral – including economic – human development. This is the “human ecology” to which our efforts must contribute.

The key adjective there is “legitimate.” Too often do we hear it said that a multinational corporation has a responsibility to increase shareholder value, never with any qualification, never as one responsibility among many, never with an acknowledgement that shareholders are people called to live morally too, not merely to make as much money as they possibly can as quickly as they can. We humans are complicated persons and only the Church has the guts to say just how complicated we truly are and erect confessionals to deal with some of those complications – and to build great monuments of art to fulfill and enrich our more humane and noble complications!

If you read the full text, you will see in +Wuerl’s remarks something we all expect in this encyclical, that the Church’s concern for the environment is linked to our concern for the poor. We know that critics and opponents of the pope’s often trenchant comments about current economic realities have their talking points down: Capitalism has lifted billions out of poverty (as if nothing else has happened since Adam Smith first set down his quill), that government regulation stymies economic growth (although the costs of regulatory compliance are not, in principle, different from other costs of doing business, such as purchasing energy, a cost the fluctuates up and down without generating all manner of hand-wringing from the capitalist benches) , ergo, environmental regulations will harm the poor (have you asked them?). Each leg of that triad is suspicious for the reasons noted. In the event, economic growth, as the cardinal makes clear, is not incompatible with transitioning our economy to a more eco-friendly model. People will still need energy to fuel their homes and businesses. Someone has to produce solar panels, someone else needs to repair them, etc. It is only those whose lucre comes from fossil fuels who should be worried and given the exorbitant amounts of money they have made over the years, I will not be shedding many tears when Exxon either changes into something else or closes its doors. Besides, the current spread eagle capitalism of the post-Reagan and post-Thatcher eras in not the only incarnation of free market principles known to history. Back in the 1950s, when the top tax rate was over 70%, the economy did just fine, and was far better for more people than the one we have today.

A final note. Every churchman in America has been worried by the latest Pew Survey that showed a decline in the number of people who self-identify as Catholics in the U.S., especially among millennials. Here is a chance for the Church to enter a public discussion about which millennials care a great deal, and to highlight the ways traditional Catholic Social Teaching is evergreen in its relevance and usefulness. I do not know if that will bring them back every Sunday. But, the Church will seem less self-referential the day the encyclical drops than it has in some time.

Cardinal Wuerl is always precise and clear in his talks, and this one in Rome was no exception. There is no razzle-dazzle, avant garde theology in his talk. Instead, there is the application of long held theological principles to a new “sign of the times,” the fact that we humans are making a mess of God’s creation, and that this mess is both a danger to ourselves and an insult to the Creator. I hope the rest of the bench will read the cardinal’s talk and make his arguments their own. Hard to imagine anything worse in the run up to the papal visit that even a shred of daylight between the pope and the bishops over something as significant as an encyclical. More importantly, here is an issue that clamors for attention, and not only from scientists but from moral theologians and Christian pastors. That work has been going on for some time, but there is nothing like an encyclical to emphasize the importance of an issue. Pope Francis is lucky to have men like +Wuerl to help explain the issues. If the angst and agita expressed by our friends on the right in advance of the document is any indication, Pope Francis will need all the help he can get.   

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