Laudato Si' - Magistra No

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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There is something a little endearing about watching some conservative Catholics wrestle with the fact that they are dissenting from papal teaching. They are a bit clumsy at it. Perhaps, here at NCR, we could offer a symposium or something. What has become abundantly clear in the last twenty-four hours is that these conservatives are dissenting, and not just from one item in a long papal document, but from the very foundations of Catholic Social Teaching.

It was easy to predict that our friends at the Acton Institute would be squirming the most. Their Rome director, Kishore Jayabalan, had this to say:

I appreciate and welcome Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, which challenges us to re-examine how we treat the earth and each other. These are non-negotiables for Catholics and there is much we can do to improve our everyday conduct. I must admit to disappointment when it comes to the pope’s overwhelming attribution of environmental and social damage to market economics, however. He seems to blame markets, over-consumption and especially finance, rather than human sin, for all our environmental problems.

The encyclical does not use the hoary category “non-negotiables” – indeed, that category is nowhere to be found in papal teaching. It is a rightwing talking point, not a proper way to frame a document that calls for dialogue and discussion. And, Jayabalan’s juxtaposition of “human sin” with “markets, over-consumption and especially finance” betrays a gross misunderstanding of what the pope said and how the Church thinks: The pope considers over-consumption a sin. The pope does not say markets or finance per se are sins but that, as practiced, they have produced this sinful degradation of the earth. If our friends at Acton are going to heap praise (I had almost written “give credit”) on markets for lifting people out of poverty, they must not only explain why such lifting leaves so many behind, but also at what environmental cost.

The ideology of markets is what the pope condemns and nobody is better at idolizing markets than our friends at Acton. The market, pristine, above the fray, is never to blame. Jayabalan says: “Any system reflects the character of those who act in it, so personal and social ethics remain fundamental.” That is true, but not exhaustive. It is also true that the characters within any system reflect the structures of that system, adopt its norms, strive for its rewards, shun its penalties, grow to make value judgments that align with the system’s contours. To say that the market is only as good as the moral values people bring to it is to misunderstand the cultural power of the market.

Such misunderstanding is common at Acton. Mr. Jayabalan says, “His [the pope’s] partial analysis neglects what markets and finance have historically done to provide cleaner air, water, and greater food security for millions of people the world over.” Really? I am sure if he consults the legislative history of, say, the Clean Air Act or virtually any piece of important environmental legislation in the past few decades, he will find that the organized power of the markets was opposed to the adoption of those laws. Is the Chamber of Commerce suddenly in favor of environmental protection? Bring up the EPA at a GOP primary debate and see what reaction you get.

Mr. Jayabalan’s Acton colleague, Samuel Gregg, gets high marks for candor. He told Business Spectator that the Holy Father suffered from “significant blind spots” when addressing economic issues:

 "When you read through the text, you find the free market, and finance in particular, is identified more or less as responsible for many environmental problems," Dr Gregg said. "It's almost a subterranean theme of the encyclical ...In many respects it's a caricature of market economies.

Actually, the charges laid at the feet of our modern, acquisitive economic structures are not subterranean at all. It is right out in the open. And, if it is a caricature of market economies, how so? Do multinational corporation engage in environmental degradation, or do they not? If not them, who dumped toxic waste in the fishing waters of Somalia, giving rise to fishermen-turned-pirates? Did Santa Claus dump toxic waste in Ghana, leaving whole communities in which all the women are barren, and there are now no children? Did government action clean up the skies over Pittsburgh or did the markets?

At National Review, George Weigel makes the case that the encyclical is not about snail darters, it is about us. He is undoubtedly correct, but the document is, in toto, about what we have done to the snail darters, and to the ozone layer, and to the oceans. In finding sections of the text in which Weigel discerns – what else – the obvious influence of his hero John Paul II, he claims that many will miss the whole for the part, but he seems to do that as well. You would not know from Weigel’s account that the pope believes the issue of climate change is morally urgent, even mortally urgent, and that his framing of the issue in terms of “integral ecology” helps the pope reach that conclusion. Weigel invokes the concept of integral ecology to change the subject.

Greg Gutfeld of Fox News inadvertently was the most astute observer on the right. He called Pope Francis “the most dangerous man on the planet.” For Gutfeld’s view of the world – and he could be a lecturer at Acton U – the Holy Father’s encyclical does indeed make him dangerous. The pope is not a Democrat or a Republican. His voice is above that fray and it is heard by many, including many who lead largely secular lives, because the pope has raised his voice on behalf of those whom God cherishes, the poor and the marginalized, just as the Master did. The pope does not issue policy directives or political platforms, and it is funny to see conservatives suggesting he does. It is one way of avoiding his challenging moral vision. And that is what we are mostly seeing from the right these days. They are not throwing a tantrum of dissent. They are throwing sand in everyone’s eyes. They should not be allowed to get away with it.  


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