Rebutting Critiques of the Encyclical

June 25, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The other day I was reading some materials on how to discuss Laudato Si’ with the media. They basically said if the interviewer, reporter, whoever, asks a critical question about the encyclical,  the person being interviewed should disagree as briefly as possible and then get back on message. So:

Interviewer: But doesn’t the Catholic Church’s position on population doom the planet?

Interviewee: No. What the Pope is saying is…

The only problem with this approach is, if I didn’t engage criticisms (and make them!), that is to say, if I stayed exclusively on some positive message, I would have very little to say. As my father, Joe Ronan, used to put it, I have quite a mouth on me.

So I’d like to discuss some of the things the critics of “On the Care of Our Common Home” are saying. That is to say, I’d like to rebut them. But so as not to fail the “positive messaging” exam altogether, let me summarize  what Papa Francesco said to the world a week ago.

  1. The earth, our common home, is in increasingly terrible shape (“a pile of filth”) thanks primarily to human activity.
  2. The Catholic faith, based in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the lives of the saints, and the writing of previous popes, is basically a “Gospel of Creation,” which calls us to protect and defend that creation.
  3. The people most harmed by environmental destruction and climate change are the poor.
  4. The “technological paradigm,” that is, the worship of unbridled growth, the free market, profits as an end in themselves, and convenience, is the primary cause of the destruction of our “common home.”
  5. The solution to this crisis is “integral ecology,” that is, embodying the profound interconnection between God, all human beings, and the rest of God’s creation.
  6. Spirituality and religious education must be based in this “integral ecology.”

Now, on to those criticisms!

The part of the encyclical that has gotten the most negative feedback, at least from my admittedly limited perspective on the margins of New York City, is the statement that cap-and-trade is not the solution to the environmental crisis. First Ross Douthat denounced this position in the New York Times the day after the publication of the encyclical; and then on Sunday, David Brooks chimed in in agreement, also in the Times.

It’s perhaps helpful to observe that Pope Francis addresses the issue of cap-and-trade in only one paragraph of the entire 246 paragraph document. Admittedly, he is unambiguous in his rejection of this approach. But it needs first of all to be said that the rejection of cap-and-trade as a solution is utterly consistent with the argument throughout the encyclical that market solutions have had lots of time to solve the problem and have failed. The current over-consumptive economy simply is not working, and the destruction of the earth is the result.

It is also worth noting that a wide range of experts and organizations outside the Vatican argue convincingly that cap-and-trade just doesn’t work. It’s a system that is rife with fraud, corruption and dishonest calculations. At bottom, it allows groups with more money, the fossil fuel industry, to buy exemptions (offsets) from regional, national, and international emissions limits (should there ever really be any of the latter) without in any way changing their  CO2 output. That is to say, the 1% get to buy exemptions from the emissions limits that the rest of us will be forced to observe.

Finally, it’s worth noting that one of the noteworthy points Papa Francesco makes throughout the encyclical is the high value of local cultures and voices. In particular, he highlights that the deaths of indigenous cultures will be as great a loss as the extinction of various non-human species. This is quite something coming from the head of a church that led the way in Europeanizing indigenous tribes during the colonial period.

But another significant aspect of the pope’s defense of indigenous cultures is that indigenous peoples are some of those most harmed by cap-and-trade, and by the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Destruction (REDD) policies that are a big part of cap-and-trade. What is happening, as the galvanizing video “A Darker Shade of Green: REDD Alert and the Future of Forests” shows, is that some governments in the Global South–Mexico and Brazil in particular–sell “offsets” to carbon emitting companies in the North. The governments get money and the  companies get to continue their emissions because rainforests and other woodlands in the Global South are”offsetting” those emissions. Then the governments of those countries run the indigenous peoples out of those rainforests and woodlands, cut down the trees, and replant them with palm oil or pine forests so they can continue to sell offsets and make a profit from the market. These are the same indigenous peoples whose extinctions the Pope is lamenting. Is it any wonder he is opposed to cap and trade?

Another criticism of the encyclical comes from the other end of the political spectrum, and  involves the Pope’s claim that population is not the cause of the climate crisis.  One humanist webpage last week had twenty-five or so people arguing about whether what the Pope says about population (and abortion, and implicitly contraceptives) makes the encyclical worthless, or something to that effect.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that in many respects, the Pope is correct. The countries whose populations have leveled off or are declining, the countries in the North and West, give off vastly more greenhouse gases per capita than countries in the Global South that have growing populations, and have done so for decades.s. Per capita, U.S. residents give off four times as much greenhouse gas as the Chinese do, even if collectively, the Chinese give off more. The historic climate destruction debt is ours. It’s not population that’s the primary problem: it’s consumption, sloth, and greed.

Let me also say that I have been working really hard for the equality of women in the Catholic Church for over forty years. I have written five books and many, many articles concerning gender and sexuality in Catholicism and Christianity. I was also at one point the president of the board of the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference. I even published a blog post criticizing what Pope Francis says about women in the previous document he wrote, “Evangelii Gaudium.” I get it that the Catholic church has serious women problems.

But it is also the case that one out of every six people on the planet is a Roman Catholic. In addition to that, the Pope is the single most well-known religious figure on earth. As Mary Evelyn Tucker at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology says, this encyclical “changes everything” because the most high-profile religious leader in the world has announced that climate change is a MORAL issue, not just a political or economic one.

If the changes in belief and action that the Pope calls for in Laudato Si’ were to happen, the situation of women would inevitably improve. After all, the anthropocentrism he rejects identifies women (and people of color) with the earth, even as it identifies males with the transcendent, implicitly male, God. And women and their children are at least seventy percent of the poor the Pope tells us are most harmed by environmental destruction. Pope Francis may not be going to ordain women, but he’s doing more for us in this encyclical than even he may realize.

Race Murder and Ecological Destruction

June 23, 2015 at 10:20 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The pastor at my parish, Michael Perry, had his work cut out for him last Sunday.

Our Lady of Refuge is a tri-lingual, multiracial parish in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. (Some say it’s in Midwood, but that’s another discussion). There are a few odd lots of white folk there, me, for example, but basically, Refuge is a Caribbean-Latino-Haitian parish.

So the pastor pretty much had to begin by acknowledging the murder of nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston the previous Wednesday. This is not to suggest that he wouldn’t have wanted to in any case. But the murder of nine people of color in a church can’t help but mean a great great deal to a church full of people of color. As Father Perry said, the people of Our Lady of Refuge were grateful that the murders hadn’t happened there.

Then there was Father’s Day. Encouraging fathers–and mothers and families–is one of the things Catholic churches do well, and Refuge did so, acknowledging fathers at various points in the liturgy, and conducting a blessing ritual for all the fathers present before the last blessing.

And then there was  Francis’s encyclical, “On the Care of Our Common Home.” Apparently a lot of priests and bishops didn’t mention the encyclical, despite the fact that it was garnering massive attention around the world, in the media, from other faith leaders, even from secular environmentalists. But Michael Perry was not one of those priests or bishops. He spoke of the encyclical in his introduction to the liturgy; he talked about it in his sermon; and he spoke about it again in his comments before the end of Mass. The earth is our home, he reminded us, and the Pope reminds us that we have to care for her as we care for the poor. I especially loved what he had to say about the attacks on the encyclical on Fox News. You go, Father Perry!

All in all, this was a lot of stuff to fit into one liturgy and sermon (along with the usual readings, offertory, canon, consecration, communion routine.) And I can’t really imagine any way that the pastor could have dealt with Father’s Day except the way he did–directly.

One way that he might have consolidated his treatment of the Charleston racial murders and the Pope’s call for us to stop making our common home into a pile of filth is that in certain respects, they are the same violence. And I’m not being metaphorical here: the destruction of Black lives in Charleston (and elsewhere) and the destruction of our common home are underpinned by the same mistaken vision–that the earth, and people whose color resembles the earth, are equally worthy of mistreatment. The nineteenth century ideology of Social Darwinism was an inherent part of all this: black and brown people had evolved from the animals, who had in turn merged from the soil. At the top of the heap were white people, who had the right to abuse those beneath them by virtue of being on top.

Another dimension of the link between racism and environmental destruction is that so many (ostensibly white) people don’t understand the ways in which their own ancestors were once associated with the earth. One of the things that most astounds me about the noxious politics of Irish-Americans like Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy is that they are oblivious to the reality that the Irish immigrants in this country were considered much farther down the evolutionary pyramid than Irish-Americans think they are today. The phrase “black Irish” can be illustrated by  a cartoon from the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic caricaturist Thomas Nast portraying Catholic bishops as crocodiles crawling out of the water. And then there was the eighteenth century English travel writer who described the Irish as “primitive savages in the sea of Virginia.” Paul Ryan is genealogically a lot closer to those murdered folks at Mother Emanuel than he cares to admit.

A French historian whose name I’m blanking on (Mouthot, maybe) also clarifies the link between environmental destruction and Wednesday’s race murders when he argues that the end of slavery was less about abolitionist virtue than it was about the invention of the steam engine. Coal, and later oil, were cheaper and easier to maintain and house than actual human beings, so once the steam engine was invented, slaves came to be seen as less and less economical. This helps me understand why it was that the  British government who allowed a million Irish to die in the Potato Famine of the late 1840s were adamantly abolitionist. Each policy was more economical.

So to return to my pastor’s sermon: while  the shooting of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and Pope Francis’s encyclical on the care for our common home may seem to be two different topics, actually, destroying our brown (and green and yellow and white) mother earth and our brown and black brothers and sisters are pretty much one and the same activity. And as Papa Francesco says, until we understand that we are fundamentally connected with God, Creation, and one another, we are in for really big trouble.

Pope Francis’s Eco-Fireworks

June 14, 2015 at 11:52 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: , ,

It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone by now who hasn’t heard of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato si,  due out from the Vatican this coming Thursday. An article about it is on the top of the front page of the New York Times today. Predicted for months, and described in advance by Vatican big-shots like Cardinal Peter Turkson, the encyclical will connect the dots between Francis’s signature  commitment to the poor and the increasingly dire climate crisis  The pope is going to call on us all, including (especially) world leaders in Paris next December, to change our ways.

If you didn’t grasp the significance of this encyclical already, you will when you hear that on Friday, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate environment and public works committee, announced that “God is still up there,” and that the Pope should do his own (implicitly spiritual) business and let the politicians do theirs. This follows upon Rick Santorum, ten days ago, telling Pope Francis to “leave science to the scientists.”

Given the history of Catholicism in the United States, it’s downright unimaginable that a leading  non-Catholic politician like Inhofe would have enough respect for the head of the Roman Catholic Church to bother to tell him in public that he should mind his own business. Sixty-six years ago, journalist Paul Blanchard’s book American Freedom and Catholic Power denounced the Vatican for attempting to control American governance, and sold 240,000 copies in its first edition. A second edition appeared in 1958. Then, in September, 1960, a group of 150 Protestant ministers met in Washington and declared that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Democratic presidential candidate, could not remain independent of Church control unless he specifically repudiated its teachings. Days later, Kennedy clarified his position in his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy went on to win the election, but it was the closest presidential election in U.S. history, and many historians believe that anti-Catholicism played a significant role in Kennedy’s majority being razor-thin.

The Catholic (some would say Christian) Church was for many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire the civil as well as religious power in the West, appointing and crowning kings and intimately connected with the aristocracy. Since this was so,  it became for many after the Reformation and especially after the liberal revolutions of “Long 19th Century” (1789-1914) the enemy of freedom and democracy.  Indeed, not until the Second Vatican Council, and in particular, after the promulgation of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) in 1965 did the Church officially revise its teachings formulated in reaction to the French Revolution and the loss of the Vatican territories. (In that earlier teaching the Church had claimed that all states have an obligation to worship God according to the precepts of the one true religion–Catholicism).

A great deal has happened in the fifty years since the Catholic Church “entered the modern world” at the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965). In many respects, the Church entered the modern world just as the world itself was becoming postmodern. Catholics welcomed the Church’s acknowledgment of historical context, and the freedom of individual, but at the same time, individuals and their communities were beginning to fragment in multiple directions.  For example, the United States Congress has gone, over that half-century, from passing a Clean Water Act in 1972 (under a Republican President) to being able to decide on almost nothing in 2015, even with a Republican majority. And it would take a computer program to keep track of all the Muslim groups that are peeling off and attacking one another with every day that passes. At the same time, the sea-levels keep rising, the droughts intensify, and extreme weather events multiply, even as the leaders of world’s great nations bury their heads in the sand

In the face of all this, the post-post-modern world finds itself desperately in need of a unifying figure, someone who can call upon our deepest moral instincts and inspire us to repent and change our ways. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that the head of a monarchical, change-averse, woman-minimizing, two-thousand year old religious body would have anything to say to the world in 2015? Even in the 2000s, as the Catholic clergy-abuse crisis was roiling the U.S. and Europe, it was virtually inconceivable that a pope would have anything more to say to the secular world than “I’m sorry.”

Yet it is worth remembering that the Catholic Church is the biggest religious organization on earth. One out of six people on the planet is a Catholic. And those of us who have spent our lives lamenting the hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the church–and I am definitely one of them–might bear in mind that having one person as the symbol of an outfit does have certain media advantages. Even the amazing get-ups the popes and the bishops wear give them a certain edge over at least most U.S. Protestant clergy, out there trying to give interviews in a suit and tie.

Finally, if there’s anything that we can learn from the massive attention afforded the prospect of an eco-encyclical written by a seventy-eight year old celibate pope, it’s that God has a sense of humor. And we’re going to need one too in order to get out there and sustain the creation that God has given us in the months and years to come.

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.