|Number 581||July 22, 2015|
As I publish an entire issue of Nygaard Notes devoted to the words of Pope Francis, I can imagine some people thinking that I must be a "fan" of this Pope. Or, maybe I'm Catholic, and I'm trying to do some recruiting. Well, no. While it is true that I was educated in the Catholic faith as a young boy, I went astray in my adolescence and have no desire to encourage anyone to choose Catholicism over any other faith. That's up to you.
And, as to being a fan of this Pope, well, I'm not a fan of anyone. That is, if being a "fan" means to support someone uncritically, I don't do that, with the Pope or anyone else. On issues other than the environment, such as contraception, abortion, and the role of women in the Church, I'm not in the Pope's corner. But that doesn't detract from the power of his recent encyclical on the environment. There's some good stuff there, and that's what this issue is all about. So let's get to it.
In an influential essay published in 1967 in the magazine Science, historian Lynn White Jr. published an influential article entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis."
White commented that "The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture," as it embedded in Western culture the idea that "Man and nature are two things, and man is master." Said White, "Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends."
For this reason, White said, "I personally doubt that disastrous ecologic backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problems more science and more technology. ... More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one."
In that context White wrote the following paragraph, the words of which are so relevant to this issue of the Notes that I have christened it the "Quote" of the Week":
"The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists."
On June 18th Pope Francis released his long-awaited encyclical on the environment. It got a lot of coverage, but in some way was overshadowed by the terror attack in Charleston SC that took place on the 17th. Despite the unfortunate timing, the document deserves to be widely discussed and its implications understood.
It's quite a remarkable document. The New York Times "Pope Offers Radical Vision to Address Climate Change." I have to agree. If a significant number of the planet's 1.2 billion Catholics decide to act in accordance with the Pope's recommendations, there would be a great deal of activity, much of it in the right direction. In fact, it's already started: Democracy Now! reported on July 21st that "on Monday [July 20] a group of Catholic Workers in upstate New York used a seven-foot-tall replica of Pope Francis' encyclical to erect a highway blockade as part of an ongoing campaign to block a methane gas storage project in caverns underneath Seneca Lake. Thirteen people were arrested." I think we'll see more of this sort of thing.
Perhaps that's why right-wing commentators are so upset with the Catholic leader.
Rush Limbaugh referred to the encyclical, Laudato Si', as "The Pope's Leaked Marxist Climate Rant." The syndicated right-wing radio host Michael Savage referred to the Pope as "a danger to the world" who wants to impose "global tyranny." Said Savage, "The Pope is a Marxist. He is a wolf in pope's clothing, he is an eco-wolf in pope's clothing, he's a stealth Marxist in religious garb" who "sounds just like the false prophet in Revelation, an ecumenical spiritual figure directing mankind to worship the Antichrist." Catholic blogger Vic Biorseth chimes in, saying "I'm afraid it is true—Pope Francis is a Marxist. George Soros is probably celebrating. So is Bill Ayers, Frances Fox Piven, and especially, Comrade President Obama, peace be upon him."
That stuff is kind of amusing, which is why I included those quotations, but it's not limited to the loony right. On June 7th, before the Pope's encyclical came out, the ultra-mainstream BBC News headlined an article "Is the Pope a communist?" Their answer was that he's not, but lots of people believe he is. Just search the Internet for "Pope Francis Marxist," and you'll that we are talking about more than just a half-dozen cranks with radio shows.
The New York Times, as usual, refrained from the most extreme right-wing rants. In fact, the Times' environmental reporter, Justin Gillis, asked in a June 19th article: "Did the pope get the science right?" Said Gillis, "The short answer from climate and environmental scientists is that he did." The reporter went on, "When reciting facts, as opposed to making judgments, the pope aligns himself squarely with mainstream scientific thinking. Indeed, those sections of the document could serve as a syllabus for Environmental Science 101 in just about any college classroom."
However, Gillis did find it necessary to acknowledge what he called "contrarians," and which some call "climate change deniers." And he did it in a rather odd way, saying "In aligning himself with mainstream scientific thinking, Francis invites criticism from people who dispute the science of climate change—indeed, these contrarians were attacking his paper even before it was issued."
Let's pause for a moment to think about that paragraph, since the logic here is so bizarre. The point of the article is to answer the question of whether or not the scientific aspects of the Pope's encyclical were in line with the scientific consensus on climate change. And there really is no significant argument among scientists about the fact that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, which is what the Pope says.
So what is the reporter's point here? His point appears to be that the Pope's decision to say... well, anything, really, is to "invite criticism" from those who disagree with him. Actually, from those who disagree with him or with the "mainstream scientific thinking" upon which the encyclical is based. Of course, any time any human being takes a position on any conceivable subject, they are—virtually by definition—"inviting criticism" from those who disagree with that position. And they are "inviting support" from people who agree with them. Doncha think?
So why would the Times include this nearly nonsensical paragraph at all? It's an indication of the power wielded by these "contrarians," who derive their power from their ability to generate what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, in their 1988 book "Manufacturing Consent," refer to as "flak." The Times—and virtually every major news organization—is so afraid of being bludgeoned with the charge "liberal media" that they feel compelled to include the "conservative" point of view in every article. Even when, as in this case, the "conservative" point of view is the absurd "contrarian," denial-of-reality point of view.
When Rush Limbaugh et al accuse the Pope of being a "Marxist," it's not intended to describe anything or to enlighten anyone. It's simply an insult, a smear, an emotional attack on the Pope's credibility. In the United States, the word "Marxist" has long since stopped having any literal meaning, at least in most people's vocabulary. If the word "Marxist" meant anything, then perhaps we could debate whether or not the Pope is a Marxist, and whether that's a good or a bad thing. But we're not there, and Limbaugh and Savage and the like are well aware that we're not there.
And, as far as whether the Pope is encouraging us to worship the Antichrist, I don't even know what that's supposed to mean, and it's not sufficiently interesting for me to look it up. Instead, what I will do in this issue of the Notes is to share some of my favorite parts of the Pope's encyclical. Those excerpts, and my comments, appear below.
What follows is a collection of excerpts from the Pope's environmental encyclical, entitled Laudato Si', with the subtitle "On Care for Our Common Home." I think these excerpts (from an 82-page document) give a hint of what I consider to be a genuinely radical statement from a very influential international figure. The document is addressed not only to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, but to all people who can derive some motivation from it. I hope lots of people do.
I've grouped the comments into four categories. "Leveling" refers to the idea of addressing global inequality by not only increasing the wealth of the poor, but also by decreasing the wealth of the rich. The second section I call "Systems" because, rather than pointing the finger at "bad" people, the Pope instead speaks repeatedly about systems and structures, even stating simply at one point that "It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected."
In the section I'm calling "The Commons" the Pope tells us that "the right to private property" is not "absolute or inviolable." (This is no doubt why so many "conservatives" are calling the Pope a "Marxist.") And in the final section, "Theological Statements," the Pope warns that we are "usurping the place of God even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot." In the process, the Pope says that the language of the Bible is both "symbolic and narrative," and not to be taken literally in every case.
Within the Church and in the secular world, these are pretty radical words. Read them for yourself and see if you agree. In the original text, each paragraph has a number. I've left the numbers in, so you wouldn't think I'm making this up. My comments, in italics, appear throughout. Anything not in italics is the Pope speaking.
Section 1: Leveling
Speaking in a way that no politician dare speak, the Pope in Paragraph 193 tells us what we all know deep in our hearts: That the earth cannot support 7 billion people consuming resources at the level that those of us in the rich countries currently consume. And he states the obvious and painful imperative for all who seek greater equality among the earth's peoples, which is that the rich must have less in order for the poor to have enough:
193. In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, then in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behavior of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth. Benedict XVI has said that "technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency".
27. Other indicators of the present situation have to do with the depletion of natural resources. We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.
Section 2: Systems
In Paragraph 52 the Pope speaks of a "system" that is "structurally perverse" and which, for that reason, confers different responsibilities on different parts of the system:
52. The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The land of the southern poor is rich and mostly unpolluted, yet access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development. The poorest areas and countries are less capable of adopting new models for reducing environmental impact because they lack the wherewithal to develop the necessary processes and to cover their costs. We must continue to be aware that, regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities. As the United States bishops have said, greater attention must be given to "the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests". We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference."
The intertwining of social and ecological systems, and the equal importance of both, is the subject of Paragraph 145:
145. Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems.
Paragraph 194 speaks of the difference between a system based on growth and a system based on the welfare of the environment of which humans are a part:
194. For new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change "models of global development"; this will entail a responsible reflection on "the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications". It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people's quality of life actually diminishes—by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources—in the midst of economic growth. In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.
Section 3: The Commons
23. The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth's orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun's rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.
30. Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behavior within a context of great inequality.
VI. THE COMMON DESTINATION OF GOODS 93. Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and "the first principle of the whole ethical and social order". The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that "God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone". These are strong words. He noted that 'a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights—personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples—would not be really worthy of man'. He clearly explained that 'the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them'. Consequently, he maintained, 'it is not in accord with God's plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few'. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
146. In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.
Section 4: Theological Statements
I'm no theologian, but I do know that there are there are biblical fundamentalists, Catholic and Protestant, who read the Book of Genesis in the Christian Bible quite literally. Including the part where it says "God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth." In a very short Paragraph, Pope Francis argues against such a literal interpretation:
66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality.
Elsewhere the Pope explains what he thinks "dominion" means, and relates it to "reality." He directly disputes anthropocentrism, which is the idea that human beings are at the center of, or are the most important part of, the world:
116. Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society. An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our "dominion" over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.
75. A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.
(The Pope is really taking a strong position here. For a fascinating discussion of the implications of what he calls a "wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world," you may want to read a short article published in 1967 called "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," by historian Lynn White. Your search engine will find it if you search by the title.)
If you'd like to read the entire 82-page encyclical you can just aim your search engine to "Laudato Si'."