The Pope’s Encyclical (1)

About Laudato Si, the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, some preliminary observations:

First, although “encyclical” bears some etymological relation to “encyclopedia,” Laudate Si is either too short to be considered an adequate treatment of the wide range of concrete issues and philosophical themes it treats, or too long because it tries to do too much but does it poorly. It raises specific scientific controversies it would have been better to leave out, and embraces some preposterous conclusions.  This mitigates or undermines some of the more defensible theological discussions which are poorly developed.

Laudato Si has the look of something that was written by committee. Popes are busy people, and unlike the previous two popes who brought a record of serious theological and philosophical writing with them to the Vatican, I don’t think Pope Francis is in their league. Hence this should be seen as a “consensus” encyclical, which has all the same defects as the “consensus” climate science reports from the U.N. It would be possible to edit down the text of Laudato Si in such as way as to produce a very conservative document, or a very radical leftist document. Instead we have something of a mess.

Second, it is notable that Pope Francis goes to great trouble in the opening of Laudato Si to represent the encyclical as a close continuity with the core teachings of his two conservative predecessors, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. Nice try, but no sale. It is true that John Paul II and Benedict were both critics of modern materialism, and offered critiques (much more subtle than Francis however) of market economies, but above all both John Paul II and Benedict understood that the secular left was the main threat of modernity. John Paul II, for example, shared some sympathy with the essence of “liberation theology,” but he understood that in practice liberation theology was a fillip to Marxist totalitarianism, which is why he publicly opposed it.  As I’ve pointed out before, Francis is bringing it back.

While Laudato Si does have some good language that runs against the anti-human implications of modern environmentalism (which will somehow fall out of the pages of the left’s copy of the encyclical), this is vitiated by throwing in with the incorrect claims about environmental degradation that seem to have been borrowed from the Club of Rome in the 1970s. (Club of Rome? Club of Rome?  Hmm. . .  Maybe the Vatican Library just hasn’t been updated lately. . .) As Ross Douthat points out today in the NY Times, Pope Francis has inexplicably thrown in with the catastrophists, which is both factually wrong and theologically dubious. (For a longer analysis of why, read this.) Anyway, Ross:

However, its catastrophism also leaves this pope more open to empirical criticism. For instance, he doesn’t grapple sufficiently with evidence that the global poor have become steadily less poor under precisely the world system he decries — a reality that has complicated implications for environmentalism.

Nor are questions related to population growth successfully resolved. If resource constraints are really as severe as the pope implies, and technological solutions as limited in power, it isn’t entirely clear how the planet can sustain the steadily-growing population the Catholic vision of marriage and fecundity implies. To credibly make the case that a billions-strong human race can keep having large families, you might need a more, well, dynamist view of the human future than this encyclical contains.

Third, yes—the issue of the philosophical impact of technology is extremely worthy of theological treatment by the Church, isn’t there something more than ironic about raising this theme in an undeveloped way through a Church Twitter account and website?

Finally, liberals are taunting Republicans critical of Laudato Si for being bad Catholics, or “cafeteria” Catholics, which is pretty rich coming from the party of abortion and gay marriage. Fine; I propose the following political compromise: Republicans will agree to pass a carbon tax to fight climate change in exchange for Democrats supporting a ban on abortion and a defense of traditional marriage—as every Pope has called for. Heck, I’ll even throw in abolishing the death penalty. Think we’ll get any takers from Democrats? Yeah, me neither.