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The Challenging Truth of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment



David Mills - published on 06/24/15

The pope’s criticism should be taken as a challenge, not to disprove the pope but to reexamine one's own commitments.

The Holy Father’s release of his encyclical Laudato Si has produced the amusing, and bemusing, sight of conservative Catholics hauling out the arguments used by dissenting Catholics and looking at the pope with the same attitudes. Change a few words and you could be reading the liberal reactions to Bl. Paul VI and Humanae Vitae or to St. John Paul II shutting the door on ordaining women to the priesthood or to Benedict XVI allowing the use of the old Mass.

My favorite recycled argument is the claim that if the pope doesn’t speak infallibly, you’re free to reject what he says, an argument first used to justify support for contraception when the pope banned it. Then, in the late sixties, conservative Catholics roundly rejected the idea, and rightly so. Now, it’s useful. Everything depends on whose ox is gored.

Several critics, for example, jumped on Francis’s passing comment about air conditioning. He wrote

People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times appears self-destructive. (section 55)

The critics’ reaction was in essence: He criticizes air conditioning (haha, how silly) but the developing world needs it (haha, gotcha!). People not hitherto noted for great concern for the poor and the developing world suddenly became their caring defenders when they thought they had a stick with which to beat Francis. Many of the criticisms made of Francis and the encyclical have been of this same cheap sort.

The quote doesn’t even suggest eliminating air conditioning, especially where it’s needed. All it suggests is that we don’t use it more than we need to. It’s obvious that American homes don’t need to be the iceboxes many of them are and produce pollution they don’t need to produce. And seriously, who do we think cares more about the poor, Francis or his American critics?

I’ve been observing this settled dislike for Francis since he became pope (and wrote on it here), but even I have been surprised by how quickly Francis’s critics ran to criticize him and how complete was their rejection, and by the range and persistence of the reaction. I wouldn’t have thought so many people were so invested in conservative climate change orthodoxy and in a certain version of free market economics.

Some of his critics suggest that he’s playing for worldly approval or has been too much influenced by the world, or that this poor Argentinian just doesn’t understand modern economies. It’s an impertinent charge, but also an imprudent one, given that his critics are affluent white Westerners who are defending a system from which they’ve benefitted, not to mention how many of them work for organizations that get their money from political and economic conservatives. “He’s a creature of his situation” is not a game the wise critic starts. “I am rubber, you are glue,” as the children’s rhyme puts it.

Francis’s critics are all-in. Their rejection is total. They risk being prodigal sons who don’t come back.

But not every critic is, as I wrote in Ethika Politika. He has his implacable critics, for whom nothing short of his becoming a near-Lefebvreite and/or an American libertarian will do. But others, having wrung their hands, or licked their chops, in anticipation that Laudato Si would prove their pessimism right, seem to feel a little chastened. Which is something.

Francis invited discussion, and his Catholic critics are not wrong to disagree. A great many of them are wrong to disagree in the way they did. If you read only their articles, you’d think that the pope had given the Church nothing more than dubious or (as some of them think) ridiculous environmental and economic claims.

A better response, a more faithful response, it seems to me, is to read the pope with deference and humility, as a son listening to his father. We call the pope the Holy Father for a reason.

I’m now about the age my father was when we had our first child. I was on my own, an adult responsible for a wife and a baby, making a living in a competitive field. I knew things then that my father did not know and held some beliefs that differed from his. I was also, as I look back now, horribly over-confident.

My dad rarely gave advice unless asked and even then he tried not to say too much. But when he did tell me something he thought I ought to know, I listened to him very carefully. I stifled, sometimes with effort, my desire to object or contradict. Even when after much thought I still disagreed, I tried to find ways in which he was right. I read him with a hermeneutic of charity, if I can put it that way, because he was a wise man who loved me. Heaven knows he was not infallible, but as I look back now, he was right more often than I saw then.

This seems to me the way a Catholic should read Pope Francis and in particular Laudato Si — especially if he is committed to environmental or economic positions he thinks the pope rejects or fails to understand. The pope’s criticism he should take as a challenge, not to disprove the pope but to reexamine his own commitments. He probably won’t change his convictions, and probably shouldn’t, but he might find that having wrestled with the encyclical, he holds them with new understanding or applies them in new ways. Intellectually, he will only gain if he reads the pope as a son (an adult son) listens to his father.

I think, for example, of the response of a priest whose emailed comments on the encyclical I saw. He — a man not known for over-optimistic readings of Church affairs — noted “the author’s distinctive romanticism,” which he thought led to an over-critical attitude to modern capitalism, but wrote that the encyclical’s “chief stumbling block is that it is true—not just true, but achingly, woundingly true—evoking repentance, summoning all to gratitude and grace.” Some of Francis’ claims about climate change can be disputed, “but to dispute would be to quibble, since his argument stands independent of these.” This priest was not uncritical, but he saw the heart of what Francis is doing and saying.

The critic will, as I say, only gain if he reads the pope as a son listens to his father. But the benefit is not the point. The filial respect is. We don’t listen primarily because we get something from listening. We listen because we are sons of a father who speaks, as the vicar of Christ, and human and fallible though he be, for the Father.


Recommended reading:

Chad Pecknold’s The Saint and the Shire  (scroll down), Leroy Huizenga’s Why I Welcome Laudato Si, Robert Royal’s The New Encyclical (the most critical of these), Aaron Taylor’s Pope Francis’s Conservatism of Joy , Tom Hoope’s Pope Francis’s Awesome, Irksome Gospel Mess, Stephen Beale’s The Deep Theological Vision Behind the Pope’s Encyclical, and Robert Barron’s Laudato Si’ and the Influence of Romano Guardini.

EnvironmentPope Francis
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