The Rollout of the Encyclical on the Environment

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

by Michael Sean Winters

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Cardinal Pietro Parolin gave brief welcoming remarks to a Vatican conference this morning on “The New Climate Economy: How Economic Growth and Sustainability Can Go Hand in Hand.” The event, like last month’s conference on climate change, represents a new sophistication in Vatican communications strategy: They have discovered the roll out. So, although Parolin’s remarks were brief, I suspect they indicate some of the major themes we shall see in the encyclical itself.

The first quote Parolin offers is not from Pope Francis, who named him Secretary of State, but from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who wrote in Caritas in Veritate:

the human consequences of current tendencies towards a short-term economy — sometimes very short-term — need to be carefully evaluated. This requires further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals, as well as a profound and far-sighted revision of the current model of development, so as to correct its dysfunctions and deviations. This is demanded, in any case, by the earth’s state of ecological health; above all it is required by the cultural and moral crisis of man, the symptoms of which have been evident for some time all over the world” (n. 32).

Conservative critics of Pope Francis largely ignored Pope Benedict’s frequent, and sometimes even trenchant, remarks about the threat posed by climate change and environmental degradation more broadly. Benedict made the Vatican City State the first carbon neutral state, but given its size, that was largely symbolic. (Of course, as Catholics, we recognize the importance of symbols!) But, his comments were frequent and they did not show any hint of the trimming, the fretting about science and its methods, that we see among so many Catholic skeptics.

That quote from Benedict also shows that the frame for understanding the problem of climate change and environmental degradation is what really irks the critics. It is true, as this conference aims to show, that there are huge economic opportunities in converting our economy to a more environmentally friendly and sustainable model. But, hard core capitalists get antsy, and sometimes unhinged, when considerations other than market outcomes are permitted, even demanded. Pope Benedict, and now Pope Francis, and indeed every pope for the past 120 years or so, has always, consistently, repeatedly, stated that the Christian measure of a market’s success is not overall GDP growth but how the economy benefits the common good, with special attention on those who are poor. And assessing the common good is not a task one can leave exclusively to economists.

Let me stress again: for the past 120 years. Yes, there has never before been an encyclical on the environment, so this will be groundbreaking in one sense. But, I anticipate that the theology in the encyclical will be very mainstream, even conservative. It is the problem of environmental degradation that is new, not the self-revelation of Jesus Christ on which our Catholic social teaching is based. When the encyclical comes out, and some conservative writer or talking head calls it “radical” ask them where is the radicalness? I suspect the theology will be very straight forward. The pope is not going to be celebrating the Gospel according to Gaia, he is going to be celebrating the Book of Genesis which, contra our fundamentalist friends, is not a book about geology but a book of theology. He will continue on through the spirituality of Saint Francis, an on to the great social encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This is not touchy-feely, radical environmentalism. It is orthodoxy.

Cardinal Parolin then quotes Pope Francis, in his message to the COP-20 in Lima last year, where the pope noted the:

gravity of neglect and inaction. The time to find global solutions is running out. We can find appropriate solutions only if we act together and in agreement. There is therefore a clear, definitive and urgent ethical imperative to act. An effective fight against global warming will be possible only through a responsible collective action, which overcomes particular interests and behaviours and develops unfettered by political and economic pressures. A collective response which is also capable of overcoming mistrust and of fostering a culture of solidarity, of encounter and of dialogue; capable of demonstrating responsibility to protect the planet and the human family.

The adjective “collective” is, of course, the big bug-a-boo among our libertarian friends. To them even the accomplishments of the social welfare state are suspect because they bear the mark of “collectivist” thinking. But, as this conference points out, there is plenty of room for entrepreneurs and inventors to come to the aid of humanity and the planet by devising, and producing, new technologies that are friendlier to the planet. There is plenty of room for individual initiative but individual initiative is not enough. Some problems need collective action and, like most expressions of collectivity, that means government action.

I also call attention to the sense of urgency in this quote from Pope Francis. There really is no excuse for inaction when the science is clear, and more than clear, that we, as one human family, need to act quickly to change the trajectory of environmental degradation. This, too, is important because political organization frequently do not move quickly, and in calling for a cultural shift away from the libertarian “what’s in it for me” attitude, combined with a lunatic belief in the virtue and power of the “invisible hand” of the markets, towards a consideration of the common good, the pope is asking for conversion, personal and political, from all of us. We are creatures of habit, but not only of habit. We adjust, we stretch, we grow. And we all need to undertake some adjustments in the years ahead.

The point of the conference in Rome is to call for both a shift in attitudes and a shift of technological know-how. There will be some “win-win” possibilities, as Cardinal Parolin noted, but there will also be some who struggle. The transition to a sustainable economy must be a just transition. The rich will land on their feet. The coal miners of West Virginia and Kentucky will need re-training, new industries in which to labor, and public investments in programs that make the transition humane for them.

Never in my lifetime has there been so much advance buzz for an encyclical. We look at the scientific data, and we say to ourselves that this environmental degradation can’t continue. But, then we turn to traditional, conservative Catholic social  teaching and we find therein the intellectual and moral resources to perceive the outlines of a better future, one that cares for the earth God created, and for the poor who are closest to His heart. 

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