A new seamless garment

Back in May, John L. Allen Jr. reported on a former Vatican Radio employee who had become one of the most prominent voices of doom opposed to Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment.

"The road the church is heading down is precisely this," augured Riccardo Cascioli. "To quietly approve population control while talking about something else." Cascioli fears that the church has bought into an agenda he attributes to the United Nations: to eliminate poverty and pollution by getting rid of the poor.

"Whatever one makes of Cascioli's point," Allen remarked, "it would be a mistake to conclude he's the only one who feels this way. He speaks for a powerful constituency in the Church, including Catholics most committed to pro-life causes."

If the suggestion hadn't been made by such an authority as Allen, I would have been surprised, even dismissive: How is it possible for anyone to believe that the same pope who so recently made waves by defending Humanae Vitae against neo-Malthusians and their ideological colonization of the poor might actually approve of population control?

Yet this week's leak of a draft of the encyclical has revived that very suspicion.

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Rocco Palmo has tweeted the theory that the leaked text is "a 'dummy' intended to sniff out its source." Why this neurotic concern for the document's "source"? Well, The New York Times reports that none less than Sandro Magister, who published the leaked draft, wrote a column on June 1 speculating that "the alleged 'inspirers' of the encyclical [were] advocates of abortion."

Clearly there are differences of opinion within the episcopacy on such issues as will come up in the Synod on the family; but it would be sensational, indeed, if one were to discover a pro-abortion lobby undercover in the Vatican.

Given all this intrigue, it may be worth pointing out that for months, Vatican officials have been talking precisely about an "integral ecology" that links care for the environment and care for the poor.

"We are called to protect and care for both creation and the human person," affirmed Cardinal Peter Turkson, one of the chief authors of the encyclical, at a lecture in Maynooth, Ireland. "These concepts are reciprocal and, together, they make for authentic and sustainable human development."

What is it that leads some to suppose that attempts to link natural and human ecology point in the direction of eugenic measures, rather than toward the more conservative synthesis clearly and repeatedly made by Pope Benedict XVI himself? Does talk of "managing and protecting creation in a responsible manner" -- in the words of Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's observer to the United Nations -- raise the specter of Planned Parenthood and population control?  

We may attribute conservative recalcitrance to a retrenched political ideology unwilling to consider that our place in the cosmos is more modest (or, conversely, that our responsibility for it is far greater) than it is comfortable for us to suppose. Less cynically, it may be that Pope Francis’ argument still seems less than obvious to some people because magisterial teaching is heading someplace truly innovative.

Would it be going too far to speak of a new "seamless garment" for the 21st century, hearkening back to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's famous image (which has itself not always been embraced by conservatives) for a "consistent ethic of life" spanning from conception to natural death?

What threads might hold such a new "seamless garment" together?

Undoubtedly there is the simple recognition that "the poorest people are least responsible for climate change and most affected by it," and that the best way to protect the poor is to protect the environment. Christian conservatives who complain about condoms in Africa -- but say nothing about the global production of greenhouse gases that will almost certainly ignite resource wars there -- can be criticized as fairly as those who protest liberal abortion laws yet favor conservative social policies that make life difficult for the poor once they are born.

"There is not only the drama of abortion," Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo recently insisted, "but there are also all these other dramas, in which you should also be interested, because they are closely related. The climate crisis leads to poverty and poverty leads to new forms of slavery and forced migration, and drugs, and all this can also lead to abortion."

Another theological concept that may relate ecological concern and concern for the value of unborn life has to do with our attempts to colonize mystery with instrumental reason. This was German philosopher Martin Heidegger's critique of technology: increasingly, we moderns "see nature and people only as raw material for technical operations" rather than as autonomous, self-revealing mysteries.

Benedict XVI was the pope who first diagnosed, in a Heideggerian vein, "something wrong in our relationship with nature." Ecological movements, he said to the German Federal Parliament in 2011, deserve credit for recognizing "that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives."

One may follow an analogical line of thought in reflecting philosophically (yet not legally, for this raises separate questions) upon the notoriously thorny "life issues." Trevin Wax recently meditated on the ontological status of fetal life, which we call a "baby" when it is wanted and a "cluster of cells" when it is not. But behind this language, which shifts according to what is socially convenient, what is fetal life, really?

Pro-life advocates who decry the "holocaust" of abortion may be a little too certain they have understood the sui generis mystery of prenatal life, which for a while consists only of a few clumps of cells that the human body frequently spontaneously aborts -- hardly a sign of something "ensouled." Nevertheless, is it spiritually any worthier or philosophically more consistent to view these embryonic beginnings as a Heideggerian "standing reserve," defining them and disposing of them entirely as we see fit under the aegis of a rhetoric of human choice?

One central problem for Christians may be our inheritance of the Biblical injunction to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28). This line could be interpreted in a shallowly disjunctive way, as simultaneously prohibiting abortion and endorsing a colonizing attitude toward nature.

Instead, it must be read with a hermeneutic formed by the verses that precede it, in which God looks at creation and declares it to be good.

It is God's love that can unify the "seamless garment" I am describing, by ascribing to all of creation -- geological, vegetable, and animal -- a dignity and mystery that our technological consciousness must reverence rather than seek to master. "Praised Be" all of it, to cite the Franciscan ode that has given the encyclical its title.

Of course, this is just my own speculation. We'll have to read the encyclical to know definitively what Pope Francis has in mind.


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