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.

To Read Thomas Berry, Start Here

August 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In the 1970s, I lived for a number of years with twenty-five or so other women in a Catholic feminist community on an organic farm outside Cincinnati, Ohio. The community was called Grailville, and the years I spent there changed my life.

It would be hard to tell you in one blog or even many the extraordinary things I learned and experienced while I was living at Grailville. But what I want to tell you about today concerns  a Roman Catholic  priest named Thomas Berry who visited the Grailville community from time to time and talked with us. The US Grail–the women’s movement of which Grailville was (and is) the national center–had been part of the “back to the land” movement from its early years, and by the 1970s the environmental movement was definitely underway, with books appearing like E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.   But Berry, a Passionist monk and professor of world religions at Fordham University in New York, was presenting some truly original ideas about the relationship between the earth and the creation stories of the world religions.

Between Berry’s visits, we would read and discuss mimeographed copies of his recently written articles. One of them, “The New Story,” proposed an entirely new creation-centered framework for understanding the universe in place of the redemption-centered framework that had served the west for more than a millennium. In 1987, the Catholic intellectual journal Cross Currents, co-edited by the Grail’s old friend Bill Birmingham, published several of these essays, including “The New Story,” and in 1990, Berry published his groundbreaking The Dream of the Earth in the Sierra Club’s Nature and Natural Philosophy Library. Today, Berry, sometimes described as a “geologian” rather than a “theologian,” is widely considered a pioneer in religious environmentalism. Reading and discussing Berry’s ideas with him in the 1970s had a profound impact on what I believe and how I live my life.

Now, Orbis Books has published a collection of Berry’s essays, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth. This short, compact volume of readable articles is an excellent overview of Berry’s thinking in cosmic/religious environmentalism. The introduction by two leaders in the religion and ecology movement, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, clarifies Berry’s importance in the movement.  Among the other contributions, published by Berry between 1982 and 2000, are pieces on “Christianity and Ecology,” a manifesto about what is required of Christianity if the planet is to survive;  “The Wisdom of the Cross,” in which Berry rereads the crucifixion in light of the entire history of the cosmos; and  “Women Religious: Voices of the Earth,” a paean to the pioneering environmental work of US Catholic Sisters.

As I read these essays, it comes to me that what Berry says here is far more directly critical of Catholic and Christian teaching than is Quest for the Living God, the book by the Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson which was recently singled out for reprimand by the US Catholic bishops. But Berry was never treated the way Johnson has been (though his forebear Teilhard de Chardin certainly was, and more.) Part of the reason for this is that it was a different set of bishops who were reading Berry’s essays (or not bothering to read them). Also, Berry didn’t claim to be writing theology; the bishops may feel less responsible for “a geologian” or “cultural historian,” as Berry sometimes described himself. Or maybe it’s just more maddening when a Catholic Sister raises these questions.

Regardless of the reason, Berry’s work should not be underestimated just because the US Catholic bishops haven’t denounced it. It’s a radical revisioning of the relationship between God and the cosmos, one badly needed as the planet heats up and our environmental options dwindle. I only wish that a wide range of American Christians would read these essays and act on them.

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