Rebutting Critiques of the Encyclical

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

Catholic Women’s Stories of “Religious Freedom”

March 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Since the end of January, there has been an enormous amount said and written about the Obama administration’s refusal to expand the conscience exemption from the HHS contraception mandate. Archbishop Timothy Dolan got things rolling by calling the decision a “line in the sand”; more recently, we have the spectacle of Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown law student a prostitute for supporting the mandate.

One thing that has struck me forcefully in the midst of all this is the difference between the way many commentators spoke about the mandate and the way a number of Catholic women did. Again and again journalists and commentators discussed the mandate without so much as referring to women. Mark Shields and David Brooks get the award: they managed to talk about the issue two weeks in a row on the PBS News Hour without uttering the word “women.” But very many of their confrere’s came in a close second : “It’s not about contraceptives,” they kept saying. “It’s about religious freedom.”

I will restrain myself from going on a tear here about the importance of being able to hold two thoughts in one’s head at the same time. God forbid that the controversy should be about religious freedom and contraception. Instead, I am preoccupied by the fact that while the in-almost-all-cases white male spokespersons and commentators were talking about “religious freedom,” Catholic women were telling stories.

Some of the stories appeared in newspapers, for example, in Gail Collins’s NY Times article, “Tales from the Kitchen Table”:

“When I was first married, my mother-in-law sat down at her kitchen table and told me about the day she went to confession and told the priest that she and her husband were using birth control. She had several young children, times were difficult — really, she could have produced a list of reasons longer than your arm.

‘You’re no better than a whore on the street,” said the priest.”

But even more of these stories took the form of on-line comments in response to articles about the contraceptives controversy. Occasionally, they had a better ending than Collins’s; one woman reported that when she told a priest in confession that she was using contraceptives after having four kids in her first four years of marriage, the priest responded that she should follow her conscience and not let anyone tell her anything different. But most of the stories were pretty miserable.

I have been so moved by this contemporary application of “the personal is political” that I am going to conclude my post with a story of my own. It has to do with my late father, Joe Ronan.

Born in 1917, my father lost his mother to heart disease when he was nine; soon after his father disappeared, leaving him to be raised by two unmarried aunts and his older sister, Julia. Julia married in the 1930s; after the birth of her fourth child, the doctor told her she should not have any more. When Dad returned on leave from the Pacific in 1942 and knocked on the front door of the house he and Julia had grown up in, where she was now raising her family, a stranger answered. He said that Julia was dead, and the family had moved back to the West End. She had died giving birth to her fifth child. Somehow, Daddy never got the news.

But the story doesn’t end there. My mother wanted to name me Julia, after Dad’s sister, but my father wouldn’t have it; it would bring me bad luck, he believed. In effect, I am the non-Julia. And while the Irish were a distinctly homosocial lot–the women in one room and the men in the other–I have always believed that another reason my father hardly spoke to me after I started wearing skirts is that he really believed that I, like all the other Ronan women, might die at any moment.

The pill didn’t exist until after Julia’s death, of course. But contraceptives were part of medical school curricula by that that time, and it was legal for doctors to share information about contraception. Whether a second generation Irish Catholic immigrant like Julia would have dared ask is another matter.

The controversy is indeed about contraceptives, fellas, and about the freedom of Catholic and other women to use them if they choose to.

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