The Right Preempts the Pope

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I put up a link to an article by Dennis Prager that amounted to a preemptive strike against Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the environment. His article was more of a rant than an argument so I only posted it with a brief comment. Within minutes, friends besieged me with two other articles that warrant a more detailed reply, but which amount to the same thing, a preemptive effort to downplay or contradict an encyclical precisely no one yet knows will say.

Professor Robert George’s article at First Things begins by warning against any politicization of the encyclical. “It seems that virtually nobody in the public media is interested in being taught by the Pope in his magisterial capacity,” he writes. “Instead, all the talk is about how the encyclical can or can’t be used to advance political agendas.” Professor George then proceeds to set out a nearly pitch-perfect set of talking points for minimizing the impact of whatever it is the Holy Father will say, that is, advancing his own conservative political agenda.

I have no objection to the first of his four points, that the Holy Father has a responsibility to teach moral norms that should guide, and even bind the consciences of, the faithful and that this responsibility extends to all areas of moral life, including care for creation as well as the sanctity of human life, marriage, and other issues of moral concern.

Professor George, however, clouds the waters on his third point. He writes:

The Pope has no special knowledge, insight, or teaching authority pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists, nor do popes claim such knowledge, insight, or wisdom. Pope Francis does not know whether, or to what extent, the climate changes (in various directions) of the past several decades are anthropogenic—and God is not going to tell him. Nor does he know what their long term effects will be. If anything he teaches depends on views about these things, all he will have to go on is what everybody else has to go on, namely, the analyses offered by scientific specialists who have studied the matter. He has (just as we have) no guarantee of the soundness of the views of any scientist or group of scientists. A view that he adopts based on what a climate-change scientist or group of scientists—be he or they believers (known to their critics as “alarmists”) or skeptics (known to their critics as “deniers”)—say, could be wrong.

That first sentence suffers from several difficulties. First, the pope does have knowledge that you and I do not have, and that I suspect Professor George does not have: He listens to the bishops throughout the world and knows what concerns they have regarding the environment and other matters of moral concern. Second, many moral issues involve the intersection of biological and moral knowledge and I do not recall Professor George seeking to preemptively set out a case for limiting the pontiff’s right and duty to have his teachings accepted by the faithful. Take for instance the issue of when human life begins, or when it ends. Science has much to say about these matters. Would Professor George assert that if some scientists argue that human life begins at birth, we can dismiss what the pope says insofar as it is based on a different scientific belief about when human life begins? Of course, we Catholics believe that from the moment of conception a human life is present that deserves protection and possesses dignity. Even if that life is not yet individuated, and cannot therefore possess rights the way an individual can possess rights, the potential of that life is precious and must be honored. I do not see why we should be able to dismiss what the Holy Father says about the environment if he asserts, as I expect he will, that in various ways we humans are at least potentially damaging the earth in ways that are immoral anymore than we can dismiss what the Church teaches about the sanctity of unborn life just because a few scientists claim climate change is not a reality.

I am also surprised that someone of Professor George’s sophistication and learning is so quick to equate the arguments of believers and skeptics regarding climate change. To repeat, no Catholic should think that just because some conservative think tank can find a couple of off-the-radar professors who think climate change is just dandy, they can then claim that we can consequently ignore what the pope teaches. Such an approach to the issue of climate change has the potential to be for these “skeptics” what the Scopes trial was for fundamentalists. The compatibility of science and faith is something many conservative fundamentalists have been denying ever since Darwin. Mercifully, the Catholic Church has never adopted such a ridiculous and absurd stance. Should we now? And why? Because the Koch Brothers make most of their money from extracting natural resources?  Because someone at CATO thinks the gas and oil lobby should be left alone by the EPA?

Surely, we can all sympathize with Professor George. If only he had included the environment on his list of “non-negotiable” items for the Church in the public square. But, the pope knows what Professor George has tried to obscure, that all moral norms require prudential judgment in their application, and prudential judgment is not a get-out-of-jail-free card to hold any position one wants. Some prudential judgments are not just factually wrong, but betray the moral norms themselves. You can’t dismiss the pope’s encyclical, pro-actively, because it necessarily entails making factual assertions. Even if, in some future time, we learn that the factual basis for a given conclusion was wrong, at least partially, at any given moment, we must form moral judgments based on the knowledge at hand, including knowledge of what a political body will accept or at least tolerate.

The question needs to be asked: Just what is going on at First Things? Do they intend to become the magazine of record for dissent from Pope Francis? They also have posted an item by Maureen Mullarkey that is full of malarkey. She writes, “But Francis is not a fool. He is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.” Wow. If Francis is an ideologue, than I suppose Jesus was an ideologue: Surely, if they try, the writers at First Things will recognize what the rest of us recognize, that this pontiff’s popularity is rooted precisely in the fact that he so obviously follows the manner and the method of the Master. And, I do not recall anyone on the Catholic Right complaining about Pope John Paul II’s interventions into the political realm. No one over there called him a “meddlesome egoist.”

The other preemptive strike against the Holy Father’s encyclical is at Forbes, and it was penned by Steve Moore, who works at the Heritage Foundation. Moore is less subtle than Professor George, and he states his case right at the beginning of his article:

Pope Francis – and I say this as a Catholic – is a complete disaster when it comes to his public policy pronouncements. On the economy, and even more so on the environment, the Pope has allied himself with the far left and has embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.

Actually, many people who are not on “the far left” are disturbed by growing income inequality and are grateful for the pope’s expressions of solidarity with their disturbance. The very poor who live in coastal regions or other threatened environments are probably not particularly ideological but they, too, welcome the Holy Father’s speaking on their behalf, knowing that global climate change, like the global economy, will probably harm them first and worst.

Moore worries that the pope is using “the language of the radical green movement that is at its core anti-Christian, anti-people, and anti-progress.” Later in the piece, he calls it “pagan.” But, of course, the Church does not dismiss Aquinas because he used the pagan Aristotle’s philosophy. And, the language the pope uses about the environment is not only the language of the radical green movement. I would be happy to introduce Mr. Moore to some Catholics who use that language too, some of them deeply conservative but not ideologically blinded by their conservatism as to think climate change is not an urgent issue. The fact that some environmentalists think over-population is a problem and support policies of which the Church would not approve does not invalidate their other environmental claims. Some in the “radical green movement” may also think the sun rises in the East, and they are right to think so.

I have had my problems over the years with dissent against Church teaching when it came from the Left. But, I do not recall these kinds of organized, preemptive efforts to short-circuit papal teaching in advance of the arrival of that teaching. The Left may not have embraced a given teaching, they may have failed to grasp its essence or depth, or wrestled with its implications. But, so far as I can recall, they did not look for ways to dismiss it outright in advance and they were at least candid about their disagreement. In this sense, I can disagree with Mr. Moore while admiring his candor. Professor George’s comments are more worrisome because they wear the veneer of fidelity. Professor George is not a fool – and neither are we. And, as Ms. Mullarkey attests, neither is the pope. But, it is a fair question who is the ideologue and who the meddlesome egoist?


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