The New Encyclical on the Environment

Pope Francis is working hard at a new encyclical on the environment and seems likely to publish it shortly. For reasons not entirely clear, it’s being given a big build-up. The leaks from Rome raise some questions – but also some hopes.

The hope lies in the fact that the Vatican seems to be consulting widely and may incorporate some of the pointed feedback in the final text.

The questions are two-fold: Church documents almost always get misread by the media – i.e., by the main transmitters of information for most people, even for most Catholics – and not always for ideological reasons. Journalists are just more comfortable translating Catholic teaching into familiar political categories of left and right. Religious categories are too foreign, or beside the point, for the majority of them.

This encyclical will, doubtless, be portrayed as anti-capitalist and liberal in its environmental policies. There’s some justification for that view in what I’ve seen so far. To begin with, passages in the draft – only a draft for now – speak of the climate as a “collective good.”

This is odd language for a Catholic text because it echoes a very bad strain in twentieth-century social history. (Those of us of a certain age may perhaps be forgiven for having come to think almost everything we ever heard called a “collective” as more or less unreal, or a failure, when not outright tyranny.)

Catholicism has a much better articulated concept: “the common good,” which avoids both collectivism and individualism.

But other excerpts speak of the state as the primary guarantor of the common good. This, too, seems to ignore recent history, a flagrant history, when regimes claiming to represent the interests of all humanity became some of the most brutal and bloody ever seen.

Catholic social thought hinges on four basic principles: the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, and human dignity. The last two – you might argue all four – guard against injustice by the state towards persons, civil society, and other spaces of freedom and truth.

You don’t have to be a libertarian or a proponent of the night-watchman state to think that relying on governments – which in democratic countries means politicians and those who influence them – to do the right thing, absent counterbalancing forces, is asking for trouble. Big trouble. All components of society have a role in promoting the common good.

A Catholic may see a proper state role in environmental policies. But we don’t write the state a blank check in such matters any more than we think that unbridled capitalism (that mythical camelopard of much religious social commentary) will solve all problems. The Soviet Union and Communist China suppressed private enterprise and directed entire economies – and were/are some of the worst polluters in recent history.

"Mulberry Tree" by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)
“Mulberry Tree” by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

Besides political and economic static, there appear to be scientific problems in the text. One passage I’ve seen speaks of “sustainable development,” a shibboleth in some environmental circles. That term, like many others in this arena, is essentially useless because it can mean anything: depending on the parameters you chose, almost any human activity can be categorizes as “unsustainable,” from using fossil fuels to having babies.

Further, the very notion of sustainability implies that earth’s ecosphere is stable and that there’s a “balance of nature,” which we ought to conserve. Neither is true, except over short time periods and distances.

If you want a glimpse of real “climate change,” try the Ice Ages. They’re the norm – the kind of “interglacial” period we’ve been in for about 11,000 years is a relative exception, and has been for a couple million years. In North America, it’s been more common for Canada and about half of the United States to be covered in mile-thick ice. That’s the Earth that God created long before we came on the scene.

The notion of a “balance” in nature is an old and Romantic view, not upheld by modern science. The best books on this subject are by scientist and ecologist Daniel Botkin: Discordant Harmonies and the sequel The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, both of which argue that one reason we fail at environmental tasks we could properly be carrying out is that we misperceive nature.

In my own book, The Virgin and the Dynamo, I wrote about how religious people generally talk about not the nature God actually created, but the one they think he created. Nature, at least as we experience it now, is not the Garden of Eden. It challenged us in the past and still does today. It takes extraordinary wisdom to know how to balance care for that dynamic Creation with human need – which Francis has been warning us is still great in much of the world. Let’s hope the new encyclical reflects all these truths.

Environmental questions involve everything – the sun and other extraterrestrial influences, earth’s complex masses and forces and life forms, and human activity. Which is what makes them a proper subject for religious commentary, properly done.

The problem, of course, is that it’s rarely done properly, which is to say, by leaving aside the technical scientific questions and thorny policy proposals, about which religious authorities have little expertise – and experts themselves disagree, as they do on every other subject.

The Church is on its own firm ground when it focuses on broader principles that should govern creatures like ourselves who can make rational choices, even in the absence of full knowledge about what can or should be done.

Even more importantly, the Church – as Benedict XVI has suggested – might help us recover a different sense of what nature actually is: neither an ideal realm nor mere material for our use, which would not only be a good thing for the natural environment, but also for humanity.

The encyclical is still a work in progress. We’ll soon see if there is something useful and fresh to say about this thorny subject, already much debated in both the secular world and the Church.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.