The Humanevangelist: The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate: Laudable Goal, Lamentable Doctrine

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As someone who has long called for humanists and mainstream religionists to work together, I naturally welcome Pope Francis’s call for action on climate change. The headline version of his encyclical is, on the whole, a good thing. As a humanist, however, I have qualms about an uncritical endorsement of the whole tome.

Perhaps tome is not quite the right word; an encyclical is meant to be a letter, but at 180 pages in six chapters, Laudato Si is surely more than a letter. It is the pope’s attempt to redirect a church hobbled by scandal and corruption toward new relevance.

That may be a welcome change, but I fear it would be a mistake to see the encyclical as wholly progressive or to imagine that it holds all the answers to humanity’s climate challenge. Moreover, I fear the pope’s call may fall on deaf ears where it needs most to be heard.

Still, there is much to like in the encyclical. Who among us would argue with this statement: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system”? Or this:

A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries. Such a consensus could lead, for example, to planning a sustainable and diversified agriculture, developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, encouraging a more efficient use of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water.

Commendably, Francis links global economic inequality with the undue burdens that SUV-commuting wealthy people impose on poor fishing villages halfway around the world.

And from the head of a church that once forced Galileo to recant, it is refreshing to hear this: “I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.”

Yet, for all that is welcome in the encyclical, it contains poisonous doctrinal pellets that render the document something we cannot swallow whole. Having raised concern for the poor, for example, the pope immediately lashes out against the idea that contraception might raise their standard of living, give women a chance to do something more than nurse a succession of babies, and enable their children to gain an education. He even puts reproductive health in scare quotes, much the way deniers bracket climate change:

[S]ome can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”….To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.

This is a classic false choice. Of course, human population growth puts pressure on ecosystems, just as shifting rainfalls do. A key instance is the Amazonian rainforests, which are simultaneously under assault by clearcutting—done by the (largely Catholic) populations of Brazil and surrounding countries— and climate change. Together, these pressures threaten to tip the rainforests into net producers of atmospheric carbon.

Not content with shoring up the tragically wrong-headed doctrine of “natural family planning,” Pope Francis gratuitously tosses in cant about the “culture of death” (yes, those are scare quotes), and attempts a ludicrous link between his main topic and abortion:

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?

This is meant to be a rhetorical question, but it has a straightforward answer. We owe particular moral duties to sentient beings, not to clumps of cells, whatever their potential might be. An embryo is not a person. You can cause a person pain or injury (and you have a moral duty to refrain from gratuitously doing so), but however fiendish you may be you cannot cause an embryo to suffer. That it may develop into a person once implanted in a womb, or two persons, or no persons, raises other questions, but the notion that the embryo itself has the moral status of a child is patently absurd.

In a quite different way, we owe general moral duties to the ecosystems that support life. Mother Earth is a metaphor. You cannot literally cause the planet to suffer, but the choices you make can have consequences for her ecosystems.

The encyclical poses other philosophical problems for humanists. Its admirable critique of transnational corporations and special-interest politics may induce readers to miss the underlying reactionary sentiments. Here, for example, is a fine, stinging rebuke to the politicians who have failed us and the corporations that have corrupted them:

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.

But is the pope simply calling for reform? No, he’s harking back to a mythical past in which the masses were better off:

The social dimensions of global change include … an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.

Real social decline? The past two centuries, and especially the past half century, have seen the greatest expansion of human freedom and dignity in history. The abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, the end of colonialism, the legal discrediting of racism, and the emerging acceptance of gays and other sexual minorities are just a few of the markers of social progress. Yet, the pope sees social decline. He even sees increased violence where, in reality, it is at an all-time low.

Right-wing blowhards and oil-company shills have denounced Pope Francis as a Marxist. Steve Milloy of the Free Enterprise Action Fund has started tagging him “the Red Pope.” This is nonsense. As an institution that looks back on an unbroken apostolic succession from Jesus, the Vatican is inherently conservative and the pope is no exception. Yet, their theology and structure give rise to a feudal vision of humanity that the weak-minded or malicious could misconstrue as Marxism:

Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. … If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle.

Yes, that would be the lifestyle of ants, where each individual’s genetic interests are bound up in the reproductive success of their colony’s queen. Experiments in making humans reject “every form of self-centeredness” have been catastrophic. The latest of these, the so-called Islamic State, shows no signs of being any better. The reason liberal human civilization is so much more interesting and fulfilling is that we are highly variable individuals who more often than not cooperate for mutual gain.

For all its faults, let’s acknowledge that global capitalism has done more to alleviate the suffering of the poor than any religion has. It has done this directly, by creating global markets, and indirectly, by generating surplus wealth that has gone into philanthropy such as the transformative Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While the Gates Foundation has been stamping out polio in sub-Saharan Africa, the Catholic Church has increased misery there by discouraging the use of condoms during the AIDS epidemic.

None of this means that we should ignore or repudiate the encyclical. Pope Francis seems like a decent and humane man. Most people will stick with the headline version. If anyone can bring together an effective coalition to constrain runaway climate change, it’s more likely to be the pope than, say, Bill McKibben. Yet, the key word for humanists is coalition. An alliance would imply far broader and more durable agreement than Laudato Si invites.

In coalition, we need not agree on anything more than our overarching goal. Climate change is the great enemy of civilization, and as the ancient proverb has it, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

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