MSW Responds to Professor George

by Michael Sean Winters

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Professor Robert P. George was not happy with my criticism of his article in First Things in which he set forth what he perceives as the limits which are owed papal teaching, in anticipation of Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment. He has given a fulsome response at the same journal.

First, let me thank Professor George for correctly pointing out an error in my initial criticism. He rightly notes that I mischaracterized Church teaching on human life. I wrote that even if someone does not believe, as the Church does, that human life begins at conception, the Church also teaches that the potential for human life is worthy of respect. What I meant to write, and what I should have written, is that in my own conversations with people who do not believe what the Church teaches about life beginning at conception, I often make the case that while they may not feel any sense of affinity with an embryo, an embryo is not an acorn and will not grow up to be an oak tree. So, it is I, not the Church, who makes that argument. And, I find it is sometimes persuasive. Still, Professor George is entirely right to say that I mischaracterized my own arguments as those of the Church.

The rest of his article, however, is more than a little pathetic. He thinks I was missing the point, or worse, when I suggested that while popes may not have specific scientific knowledge the rest of us do not have, they do have some knowledge many of us do not, knowledge of the situation facing Catholics around the world, from their consultations with bishops, and that such knowledge gives their opinions added weight. He writes:

Obviously the concerns about which popes may consult bishops are not “knowledge pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists.” Look, I love Archbishop Chaput, for example—I admire him as much as Mr. Winters seems to despise him. I think he is a man of enormous wisdom and profound goodness. But if I want to know whether I ought to bring an umbrella to work, I don’t call him; I go to Popes do much the same thing (though I don’t know their preferred meteorological websites). They rely on scientists to do the science, not bishops. If there is a dispute among scientists as to whether the climate is changing in disastrous ways and whether human activity is partly to blame, popes cannot resolve it by consulting their brother bishops or reading the scriptures or reviewing the Church’s tradition.

I think it is Professor George who misses the point, or worse. You see, the knowledge of what is really going on in people’s lives, to my mind, is important knowledge and knowledge that qualifies as an empirical fact. It is true that a bishop in Brazil is not a meteorologist, but he knows that deforestation in the Amazon basin is wreaking havoc on the lives of his people. And, that knowledge demands a response from the People of God and their bishops. It is more important than the knowledge that it may or may not snow here in Washington this morning. In fact, it is Professor George’s desire to prove his point at all costs that evidences precisely the kind of preference for ideology over facts that this Holy Father has persistently denounced.

N.B. I do not “despise” Archbishop Chaput. I disagree with him about his views on the cultural situation of the Church in the United States.

There is also a different point that Professor George misses or chooses to miss. He continues to draw too sharp a distinction between moral norms and knowledge and practical or scientific knowledge. We have seen this before, when some of our conservative friends invoke prudential judgment as a kind of get-out-of-jail free card. The fact that moral decision making requires the application of prudential judgment is a given, not an excuse. We, as Catholics, abhor abortion but we must use prudential judgment how to end the scourge of abortion, choose among legal and political strategies, recognize the limits of legal prohibitions, and craft arguments that will persuade those who moral compass is different from our own. The moral norm of aiding the poor is absolute, but we can all agree that meeting that norm admits of different approaches. But, we can also acknowledge, in both cases, that some approaches are a dodge, not an exercise in prudence. Professor George’s approach invites relativism, does it not? After all, science is never really settled given its own internal dynamics.  

Which leads to the most troublesome part of Professor George’s latest essay. He doubles down on his claim that there is a lack of scientific consensus about global climate change and the role of humans in creating that change. He cites experts. He might want to be a bit more careful in collecting his witnesses. For example, he cites Nobel-prize winner Ivar Giaver. We all take note when someone wins a Nobel, but Mr. Giaver is not a student of climate change. In fact, in this interview he said:

I am not really terribly interested in global warming.  Like most physicists I don't think much about it.  But in 2008 I was in a panel here about global warming and I had to learn something about it.  And I spent a day or so - half a day maybe on Google, and I was horrified by what I learned.  And I'm going to try to explain to you why that was the case.

Why not cite someone who won a Nobel in Literature next time? Professor George can compare his list of four experts with this list of scientific organizations that recognize the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Professor George also cites William Happer who, like George, teaches at Princeton. Mr. Happer is a physicist. He is also a little bit crazy when it comes to making moral arguments. For example, in a CNBC interview he said, “demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.” No, sir, it is not. Professor Richard Lindsen is indeed someone who studies climate change, and thinks we have little to be worried about, but his views are so contrary to everyone else’s, you would have to be one hell of a probabilist to reckon that they can form the basis of a sound moral judgment. And, Freeman Dyson hopes that we can solve the problem by genetically engineering really big trees that would soak up all the excess carbon dioxide. This idea might prove possible scientifically, for all I know, but I would not bet the house on it, not least because I am not really betting my house, nor is Professor George or the Pope. It is the poor shacks of the poor, strung along coastlines worldwide, who would pay the price is Professor Dyson’s genetically engineered super trees fail.

If Professor George wishes to spend the rest of the year impersonating William Jennings Bryan, he is entitled to do so. But, I think the last thing the Catholic Church should do is embrace the climate change equivalent of creationism. We do not need to have a twenty-first century version of the Scopes Trial with Catholics cast in the role of fundamentalists.  I, for one, am glad Pope Francis seems more inclined to recognize the current consensus on climate change and its causes in formulating his moral arguments.

And, if Professor George wants to gut Lumen Gentium #25 to cover his dissent, let him. I just wish he would be upfront about it. I am not much of a fan of dissent whether it is found on the right or the left, but at least the left is honest about it. Instead, he claims the mantle of orthodoxy while publishing an article the only, and obvious, purpose of which is to preempt the pope’s encyclical on the environment and reassure his fellow conservative ideologues that they can ignore whatever the pope will say. He may deny that such was his intent, but really, what other intent could there be? I hope the pastors of the Catholic Church in the United States will pay attention to these alarming articles prebutting the pope and see them for what they are.   

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