Pope Francis, the Environment, & the U.S.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The controversy over the theory of gravity continues. While most scientists have accepted the theory, a determined, vocal and well-funded group of politicians, armed with studies most scientists dismiss, argue that Newton got it wrong. Corporations that make hydraulic lifts and airplane manufacturers are concerned that the debate could affect their businesses. Journalists, abiding by their own standards, feel compelled to acknowledge both sides of the dispute. The general public, unable to ascertain the veracity of the rival claims, seem inclined to sit this debate out.

Of course, the above paragraph is a spoof. No one seriously doubts Newton’s conclusions about gravity. Nor did subsequent developments in the field of physics – from relativity to quantum physics - lead to any kind of deep questioning of the theory. Newton learned what he was able to learn given the limits of his time. But, no one really questions the theory of gravity, it is not the subject of public disputation.

Why, then, is the subject of climate change still contentious, at least here in the U.S. Like the issue of gun violence, Americans have a tendency to engage debates the rest of the world has resolved. There is a face to American exceptionalism that is profoundly ugly and we see it in this discussion about climate change. Both discussions, about climate change and gun violence, evidence the American fetish to lionize dissent. I am deeply conscious of the fact that at certain times and on certain issues, a brave individual has stood up and said an accepted social practice or belief was wrong. But, surely it is time to insist that a dissenter, on any issue, have more to say than to invoke their intransigence to earn the admiration of the rest of us.

The issue of the environment challenges another of America’s deepest festishes, our confidence in human progress, as well as our well documented credulity when it comes to the claims of scientism.  We hear that on a particular issue, we should “be on the right side of history.” We hear “but the science says” as an answer to a question that is not scientific but philosophic or theological. And, in a culture that is increasingly, dangerously libertarian in its sensibilities, woe betide the person who puts forward a non-materialistic measure of human progress.

Enter Pope Francis and his recent comments on the environment at the University of Molise. At the Atlantic, Tara Isabella Burton has a fine article that examines the Holy Father’s comments, especially this sentence of his: “This is our sin, exploiting the Earth. ... This is one of the greatest challenges of our time: to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation.” And, we know the Holy Father is preparing an encyclical on the environment that will surely cause a stir. That embodiment of Catholic Taliban sensibility, former Sen. Rick Santorum, is quoted in Burton’s piece saying, “We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth’s benefit.”

We can anticipate the conservative reaction to the Holy Father’s teachings on the environment: They will track with the reception of his teachings on the economy. Some will seek to minimize or sideline the teaching, and in recent years, for large numbers of Catholics, the social teaching of the Church has not exactly been front and center in our proclamation of the Gospel. Yet, in both cases, the issues are structural. The problem is not merely a want of personal virtue. Nor can the venerable, if often misused, concept of subsidiarity be a kind of hiding place for those who wish not to confront the implications of climate change: Whatever solutions are devised must certainly involve every stage of society, but the problem is, in the most literal sense of the word, global.

There is an adjective that comes to mind when I think of our current economic system and our current practices of environmental degradation: rapacious. And, to be clear, the environmental rape is a by-product of the economic rape. It is not enough to write a check to the World Wildlife Federation after making millions of dollars exploiting the earth’s resources. Just as we Americans need to look to ourselves, to twenty years of NAFTA, our drug habits, and our gun manufacturing, to explain why the previously dismal poverty of Central America has now become so extreme that mothers send their children to our borders to escape the violence of their hometowns, so we Americans must grapple with the way our appetites are responsible for raping the earth. As regular readers will know, I am not a “blame America first” kind of liberal. But, in this instance, there is no escaping the fact that we have created an economy that is built upon consumption, and that such consumption is not sustainable environmentally (or economically, or morally, for that matter).

It will not matter to the conservatives U.S. Catholic cheerleaders that Pope Francis is building upon the prior work of Pope Benedict XVI. The same could be said about Pope Francis’ teachings on the economy: He is building there, too, on what Pope Benedict, and Pope John Paul II, and Pope Paul VI, and Pope John XXIII, and Pope Pius XI, and Pope Leo XIII all had to say. As I pointed out yesterday, the privatization of religion in America has been a staple of American religiosity, Catholic and Protestant, since colonial times. Protestant theology permits such a privatized, individualistic understanding of faith, but Catholic theology does not, never has, and never will. But, American Catholics have drunk deeply at the wellsprings of American culture, taking in the bad with the good.

Pope Francis, and his predecessors, bring something to the discussion of climate change and environmental degradation that most environmentalists do not bring. He called the degradation a sin. It is a powerful idea, one that many Americans, especially on the left, prefer not to think about. Admit it: When Pope Francis talks about Satan, how many of you get the willies? This willingness to dismiss talk about the devil as medieval obscurantism occurs despite the fact that in our baptismal rite, before we are baptized in the name of the Blessed Trinity, we are called to assert that we reject Satan, and all his works, and all his empty promises. This is no mere verbiage, no mere custom. And, truth be told, how can we explain the almost blithe manner in which we have all become complicit in the rape of our planet without acknowledging the Devil. Good people, doing good things, seeking to feed their families, to make a life for themselves, can scarcely avoid feeding the beast of environmental degradation. All of our human progress has not obscured the reality of original sin, our first inheritance.

Is there any good news? Of course, as Christians, we are called to always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within us. (1 Peter 3:15) Where is our hope? Our hope is in Jesus Christ who calls us to conversion, who calls us to reject Satan, who calls us to care for each other and for the earth, in whom the earth was created. Where sin is great, mercy and grace aboundeth all the more. But, the first step towards conversion is the admission of sin. Hopefully, Pope Francis can challenge both the climate change deniers on the right and the original sin deniers on the left to admit their sin, their need for conversion, and remind them of the superabundant graces God showers on His people when we ask. Indeed, this seems to be Pope Francis’ special gift to the Church, to remind us not only of our need for mercy, but of God’s ineffable willingness to continually bestow His mercy. We Americans, in all our affluence, need it most of all.  

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