June 25, 2015

What the Right got wrong about the Pope's green encyclical

Brett FawcettRebel Blogger

You know, ever since the Pope's encyclical calling for protection of the environment came out, freaking out a lot of right-leaning commentators who have said some pretty nasty things about the Holy Father, I've been thinking of a story about Flannery O'Connor, the Catholic novelist from the American South.

She tells of how once, while dining with the writer Mary McCarthy (who had her own hang-ups with the Catholic Church,) McCarthy made the remark that she thought the Eucharist was a beautiful symbol, even if the bread and wine didn't really become the Body and Blood of Christ. This remark was so offensive to O'Connor that she unthinkingly blurted out: "Well, if it's just a symbol, then to Hell with it!" - the sort of remark that either exhilarates a conversation or ends it.

Keep that in the back of your mind, gentle reader.  Because this whole article is going to be a similar outburst, and it will be directed at the right-wing.  In fact, I'm going to have some harsh words for our own Ezra Levant, but, being the free-speech absolutist he is, I'm sure he'll be proud to run this column on his website anyways.

Let me start by saying to my fellow conservatives: If you're going to complain and grumble that the Pope shouldn't get involved in politics, be aware that you are endorsing the exact attitude that gave rise to statism. In medieval Europe, the secular rulers and the bishops were constantly at odds with each other, each trying to usurp power from the other and thus keeping the other in check. In fact, during the Middle Ages, the Church performed the social functions (marriages, caring for the poor, even civic documentation in the form of baptismal records) and thus kept the civil powers to the relatively limited role of keeping the peace.  

But as Hilaire Belloc identified, the Reformation - however theological and ideological its roots may have been - was largely driven by princes and kings who didn't want to be under the thumb of the Roman Pontiff, and, once they had jettisoned the Catholic system (often in favour of state churches that validated their own authority,) they were allowed to grow into the modern, bureaucratic state.

Without the Church to fulfill those social functions, the government expanded and mutated into monstrous proportions to fill the role that religion had once played. So, in other words, without the Church being there as an independent and significant power, government usually grows into a Leviathan.  

Keep that in mind next time you want to complain that the Pope should really mind his own business and keep out of civic affairs.

Yes, Laudato Si does, in fact, think that climate change is probably caused by human activity.  It is pretty guarded about it, all things considered; it acknowledges that there are "other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle)" that affect climate change, and concedes that "a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon" of the weather.  

That being said, it goes on to acknowledge that "a number of scientific studies" indicate that global warming is caused by human CO2 emissions. We should remember that St. Thomas Aquinas was clear that the Magisterium can be mistaken on particular matters of fact "on account of false testimony" or bad information (propter falsos testes,) a fact that conservative icon would William F. Buckley Jr. often remind his readers of when a Papal encyclical would make some tendentious economic argument.

But don't assume the Pope favours nationalizing, or shutting down, the oilsands.  He does call for a move to green, renewable energy sources - though, as we shall see, this is not his point - but he is clear that “[u]ntil greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions” (165.)  

Laudato Si is aware of the need for a new form of energy (and, really, even the most rock-ribbed right-winger knows that someday we will run out of oil, and we’d better have an alternative by then), but is well aware of and fully open to the realities of our world. This should not surprise us; one of Pope Francis’ advisors is John F. Kyle, former vice president and treasurer of ExxonMobil. (This fact is curiously under-reported by both left- and right-wing media.)  

Frankly, the point of Laudato Si is not that global warming is caused by human activity.  The question of climate change takes up four paragraphs of a 246 paragraph document. Pollution in general takes up much more space. We should not sneer with Mr. Levant at the language of "Mother Earth;" this kind of idiom is found in the poetry of St. Francis of Assisi, whose theology permeates the encyclical like incense flooding a church.  

The fact is that if God took human flesh - flesh which, may I remind you, is made out of dirt - then by extension the whole universe is, in some sense, joined to its Maker in a semi-sacramental way. The transubstantial reality of the Eucharist, about which O’Connor argued with McCarthy, forces us to see the dignity of creation in this way, and, so far from being pagan, the Franciscan view of the world was actually what defeated paganism in medieval Europe, as G.K. Chesterton proved in his book on our Pontiff’s namesake.

Mr. Levant is offended that the Holy Father says the Earth resembles a trash heap. “I see a beautiful world!” he declares. So does the Pontiff, but that earth is threatened by the Brobdingnagian amounts of garbage we throw away so casually. Out of (our) sight, out of (our) mind, it goes; but so often it ends up in the oceans (where 5.25 trillion pieces of discarded plastic are maliciously adrift,) or in the Third World, where refuse is so plentiful that it can be used to build shantytowns - both a ways removed from the gorgeous Canadian landscape Mr. Levant is lucky enough to be surrounded by.  

But even pollution is not what the encyclical is "about." What Pope Francis is bringing attention to is the ways in which technology shapes us for the worse. Obviously, machines and industrialization have been an amazing tool in improving the lot of the human race; paragraphs 102-3 celebrate the legitimate human advancement that technology has brought.  "Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” - how’s that for “a beautiful world”?  

But it also draws the reader into an understanding that technology, in and of itself, can shape our thinking in a negative way. The “technocratic paradigm” can cause us to treat the earth, and, worse still, fellow human beings, as mere commodities or tools for our own use rather than as creatures possessed of dignity in themselves.  

And here’s the part Canadian conservatives should pay special attention to. 

George Parkin Grant, often known as the father of Canadian nationalism, argued that Canada was founded as to preserve a conservative society against the liberalizing tendencies coming from the South, and saw Canada’s conservative identity threatened primarily by technology. Why? Because conservatism was about loyalty to your own, to your family, to your religion, to your nation (as John Henry Newman put it, “Toryism is loyalty to persons,”) whereas liberalism was all about freedom, as its very etymology bears witness to: Your uninhibited liberty to do whatever you want, without any boundaries, "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else”, and how else do people argue for marijuana, same-sex marriage, and abortion...?  

Technology was almost inherently liberalizing and atomizing, Grant argued, because it is about technique, about accomplishing one’s will; technology exists to make it easier to satisfy your personal (and often selfish) desires. Any boundaries that inhibited your desires, be they moral, national, religious, or sexual (think about how transsexuals are celebrated by society) would be transcended through technology.

Grant is hardly the only conservative to notice this connection between technology and liberalism: Russell Kirk, a conservative pioneer and mentor of Buckley’s, called the automobile “the mechanical Jacobin” because of how it fragmented and liberalized society, and famously hated television, once throwing one out the window when he found his daughters watching it. 

If you doubt this, think about what a technology like contraception has done to society: Because it separates sex from procreation, it also weakens the social importance of marriage. Nowadays, sex is less tied to the commitment of marriage and is more of a glorified form of masturbation: You find someone to stroke your body and your ego and move on when you're done - the "hookup" culture, tied closely to so-called "rape culture" and the less-discussed "divorce culture".  

This is to use another human being; and, moreover, it means that any children that do happen to result are an accident, and it isn't assumed any longer than the man has any loyalty compelling him to stick around and raise them (fidelity rather than promiscuity used to be the hallmark of masculinity). Thus you have more single-parent households; thus more crime; thus the welfare state to replace the family unit.  (And notice that, when those same children grow up, they will be more inclined to stuff their parents in nursing homes or, worse still, euthanize them.)  

This is the contraceptive mentality, which treats people as objects for my satisfaction rather than image-bearers of God, and it extends to our relationship with our communities, our businesses, and our world - it is, in other words, the mentality of the throwaway culture, which thoughtlessly throws out food while the global poor are starving. 

And green energy will not solve that problem: We can be just as selfish and thoughtless, regardless of what fuels our cars; carbon credits also are not going to solve the root problem of selfishness and egotism. It is that deep-rooted selfishness the Pope calls on us to abandon, which is why Laudato Si never condemns the oil sands, but does condemn abortion (120,) embryonic stem cell research (136,) and, implicitly, transgenderism and feminism (155.)  

In calling for us to reject the throwaway culture, Pope Francis is hardly recommending socialism (contra Levant, he has explicitly denied being a Marxist,) but is calling us to move beyond the "instrumental way of reasoning, which provides a purely static analysis of realities in the service of present needs, [and] is at work whether resources are allocated by the market or by state central planning” (195.) Instead, he calls for a technology that serves humanity and the "human ecology" rather than enslaves it.  

Rather than recommending nationalization, he points to the example of cooperatives (112) - like the very successful Mondragon Corporation, the tenth largest company in Spain and a cooperative founded by a Catholic priest - and small-scale farmers (134-5) who, yes, are to be protected from land grabbing corporations; seed sovereignty is surely an issue of property rights, no?  

In doing so, he follows the lead of E.F. Schumacher, who advocated for "appropriate technology" and "economics as if humans mattered" in his famous book, Small is Beautiful, and, far from being a socialist, it was he who helped de-nationalize German industries and generate its "economic miracle;" far from being anti-energy, he served as Chief Economic Advisor to the UK Coal Board from 1950-1970.  

Not only is this not socialism; it may be the only way to avoid socialism, which generally attracts people who feel disempowered and exploited. Chesterton, Belloc, Dorothy Day, and many other Catholic converts from Fabian socialism and communism advocated the "Distributist" back-to-the-land model wherein everyone received "three acres and a cow" precisely because they thought this was the only way to save capitalism from evolving into socialism: By promoting property rights among more people; this was the best way to save the environment, and, while we’re at it, civilization.

You can disagree with some of what the Pope says. Edmund Campion was a loyal son of the Church in England who nevertheless affirmed that Elizabeth I was the true queen, despite Pope Pius V declaring her to be a false ruler and excommunicating all those who continued to obey her. Today, both Pius and Campion are canonized saints.  

But he is still an important religious voice, even if you aren’t Catholic; he speaks with the collected wisdom of 2,000 years of experience behind him. And conservatives generally pride themselves on valuing the role of traditional religion in society more than liberals do. But what about when our faith calls on us to try to make our economy more human? If so-called “conservatism” means that we don’t actually have to really take classical religious tenets seriously, then, frankly, its alliance with Christianity is entirely symbolic.

And, if it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.


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commented 2015-06-29 13:09:53 -0400
Thank you for the insight Brett. How carefully, and intelligently written. A perspective that I think examines the whole.
commented 2015-06-29 11:00:39 -0400
Mufti-syllabic gibberish with the usual “right wing” label stuck to anything a left-wing ideologue does not like but cannot explain.
commented 2015-06-29 10:33:31 -0400
There are very many of us who don’t consider this ‘pope’ as anything more than a phony shaman, at best. I’m a conservative through and through, but I see this guy as the flip side of the oppressive governing we suffer. He is just a piece of protoplasm that does not deserve any more respect than a homeless person.
commented 2015-06-27 22:15:28 -0400
The facts are that globull warming is a massive taxation/rent seeking scam and Pope Frank is seen to be willing to align himself with leftist elites who intend to pauperize the world for their own self-aggrandizement. No normally intelligent person in a position of power would accept the flimsy evidence for GW on offer unless they intended to greatly benefit from the false situation.