Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Laudato Si Hotfix

I have drafted elsewhere the letter George W. Bush ought to have written in response to the letter he received from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Here I intend to do something much more arrogant. As a recently returned Catholic who had felt threatened and disturbed by last year’s Papal Encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ - but having read through it is more or less okay with it now - I would like to suggest two small additions to it.

The first addition is intended to assuage the concerns of those, such as myself, who are concerned that a preoccupation with the threat of anthropogenic global warming distracts from more important environmental issues and is a convenient rod for technocrats to beat the backs of the poor. The second addition would address a certain elephant in the room. 

‘Laudato Si’ is not primarily concerned with ‘climate change’. It begins with a long list of different environmental problems, some of which are undoubtedly serious, others less so. Pope Francis does not prioritise them. This is a particular bugbear of mine – the failure to prioritise – but in this case I can see both a good excuse and a good reason why this should be the case. The excuse is that it is so much easier. Though not technically written by a committee (I assume), an encyclical necessarily takes on some of the characteristics of any document written by a committee, which means it is much easier to get some additional topic included vaguely than to get a firm plan with priorities and actions and deadlines. In the interests of avoiding interminable to-ing and fro-ing about priorities,  and coming up with a final draft before 2056, I think not putting priorities on the litany of environmental woes can be excused. The good reason I can think of is that the Pope is humbly and clear-headedly aware that he does not have the skills and knowledge to prioritise these environmental concerns. Realising that even the whole apparatus at his command does not have the appropriate skills and knowledge, it is reasonable for him to refrain from offering priorities in the encyclical. What I suggest be added is an explicit statement of this difficulty, combined with a clear statement of the need for someone to prioritise to challenges listed. I propose something along these lines, to be inserted at the end of paragraph 62, the end of Chapter One: 

“Mindful of our Saviour’s exhortation to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your mind (Matthew 22:47; mark 12:30; Luke 10:27), we recognise that balancing the social and economic needs of humanity with the needs of the Earth is a difficult task, in which it will be necessary to employ the fruits of scientific inquiry and of the economic calculus, and to exert in extraordinary ways the abilites of humanity granted to us by God. We pray that our leaders be granted the discernment to respond in these challenges in a way that will heal our common home without adding one jot or tittle to the suffering of the poor.”

That is all. That would effectively neuter any concerns about ‘Laudato Si’ as a leftist stalking-horse clothed in Catholic rhetoric, at least as far as I am concerned. (For what it’s worth, having read it I am convinced it is the other way around: it is primarily an attempt to yoke certain fashionable causes to the plow of traditional Catholic social teaching.)

Now, to move on to the second addition. In paragraph 106 Pope Francis makes the following statement: “This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.[Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 462.]”

This idea of infinite or unlimited growth is not unique to capitalists, however. It is a fundamental characteristic of life. In the words of the Chinese science-fiction author Cixin Liu: “The amount of matter in the universe remains constant, but life grows exponentially. Exponentials are the devils of mathematics. If there’s a microscopic bacterium in the ocean that divides once every half hour, its descendants will fill the entire ocean in the space of a few days, so long as there are sufficients nutrients.” [Cixin Liu, the Dark Forest]

The elephant in the room is of course this. You cannot plausibly advocate for the protection of the environment while simultaneously advocating - or being seen to advocate - policies that lead to exponential population growth. Addressing this inconsistency would require a clear statement of policy, rather than rhetoric alone. But it could be done very simply, without damaging the ecumenical dialogue with the East or leading us down the slippery slope the Anglican Communion began to descend in 1930.  All is needed is a clarification of the existing teaching of the Church on the conditions under which natural family planning is justified, to state that these explicitly include a concern for the environment. I propose something along these lines, to be added at the end of paragraph 50:

“Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humane Vitae, has stated that recourse to infertile periods is a lawful method of regulating procreation, if “there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances”. [Humanae Vitae, 16.] It is now clear that these external circumstances include the clear and serious challenges facing our common home, and we encourage faithful Catholic married couples to remember this.”

That would never satisfy the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, but then nothing will satsify them. To thoughtful people, however, it would signal that Pope Francis is serious about what he is saying in ‘Laudato Si’.