Mixing It Up with Pope Francis

Confused by the incessant culture-war back and forth on the issue of climate change? Usually, it’s pretty easy to pick a side. Since, as Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan argues, what we “believe” about issues such as evolution, vaccinations, and climate change tells us more about who we are than what we know. Usually, those of us who consider ourselves progressives push for more and faster action on climate change. Those who consider themselves conservatives pooh-pooh the urgency of the issue. Yesterday, Pope Francis threw a St.-Peter’s-size monkey wrench into the works with his encyclical about the environment. In this searing statement, the pope challenged all of us to take a stronger stand about the changing climate.

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Now, I admit, I have not read the full document. It weighs in at 184 pages and I’ll be sure to put it at the top of my reading list. Analysis by the New York Times paints a picture of a fairly radical stand by the Argentinian pope. In short, Pope Francis went further than tut-tutting the bromides of climate science. The pope blamed affluent throwaway culture for the dangerous changes that have already begun. What are we to do? Not just consume smarter, but change our feelings of entitlement and our endless apotheosis of appetite.

Climate change, the pope wrote, is nothing less than “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” It is not enough for us to merely cap-and-trade carbon emissions. It is not enough for us to merely “grow” our way out of the dilemma. The pope’s message is clear, and rather startling in its Greenpeace-scented tones. Those of us who follow culture-war-related developments are more accustomed to the Vatican as a world headquarters for staunchly conservative thinking on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The new Popemobile?

The new Popemobile?

What does this mean for our climate-change culture wars? It will certainly mess up any bright lines between “conservative” and “progressive” orthodoxies. Of course, we’ve seen conservative intellectuals at places such as Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative who have long promoted this sort of less-is-more conservatism. But by and large, American conservatives might be more likely to agree with Richard Viguerie, who called Pope Francis’ statement a “confusing distraction.”

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has pointed out, American Catholics have been divided on the issue of climate change. “Traditional” Catholics in the USA have tended to be split on the issue and generally have been more interested in preserving traditional religious practices than in environmental activism. Could Pope Francis’ statement push them to action?

More broadly, might the pope’s statement encourage American conservatives to consider tackling climate change as a conservative mission? What about conservative Christians who are not Catholic? Some American evangelicals have openly attacked environmentalism as a “green dragon.” Others have talked about an evangelical environmentalism, calling it “creation care” or respect for the “doctrine of dominion.” Still others have voiced more complicated positions. American creationists, for example, have wondered about their theology of climate change. At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, readers are told that climate change is certainly a real phenomenon. But should we worry? Here is AIG’s advice:

should we be alarmed about climate change? Not at all. Yes, climate change is real, but according to the true history book of the universe, we should expect it as a consequence of the cataclysmic Flood. Also, Earth—and Earth’s climate—was designed by the all-knowing, all-wise Creator God. He built an incredible amount of variety into the DNA of His creatures so that they could survive and thrive as Earth’s environments change. Surely the God who equipped life to survive on a changing Earth also designed Earth with the necessary features to deal with environmental changes.

No one doubts the pope’s credentials as a smart, earnest, conservative Christian thinker. Might his encyclical spark a dialogue between conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians about the issue of climate change? Could an inter-Christian, inter-conservative dialogue move conservative Christians towards the pope’s position?

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15 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  June 18, 2015

    I’ve never seen climate skepticism as a conservative position per se. As is very well explained by DarwinCatholic: “Because trying to prevent climate change due to human release of greenhouse gasses fit well with various narratives and desires already present on the political left, that’s where the issue came to live, and because American conservatives already disagreed with the left on a lot of those other issues, it came naturally to dispute the climate change theories.” [http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com/2015/06/thinking-about-climate-change.html]

    Most people aren’t scientifically literate enough to decide the issue for themselves, and therefore tend to line up according to their political preferences.

    Also, environmental concern is not really new among popes. Quotes from the last four popes are cited in the opening paragraphs of the encyclical.

    “‘Traditional’ Catholics in the USA have tended to be split on the issue and generally have been more interested in preserving traditional religious practices than in environmental activism. Could Pope Francis’ statement push them to action?”

    Traditionalist Catholics by nature are more concerned with spiritual matters than temporal ones. It’s far more important to save souls than to save the planet. But it’s also true that different people have different callings. Some traditionalists will feel called to “take action” on the environment, but not the traditionalist “movement” as a whole since that’s just not its purpose.

    I suppose it’s natural of you to be more interested in the way the Pope is “shaking up” conservatives than in the jabs he takes at progressivism. But his main point (though I have only skimmed it myself so far) seems to be that the neglect of virtue and the lack of respect for God’s design and his purposes in creation are the main factors leading to lack of respect for the environment. For example:

    “We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.”

    “Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment.”

    “We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that lighthearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.”

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  2. I believe the climate changes. I know some scientists don’t believe it is due to human action. But I know pollution when I see it, I know abuse of land for greed when I see it, abuse of animals, water rights being snapped up by Nestle, and I agree that people are a huge problem for the planet. Our American disposable society, always looking for the next big thing, plays a huge role in the pollution. Every year a new iPhone, a new Android, new DVRs with better capability–in the tech industry alone there is tremendous waste. Not every out of date electronic gadget gets recycled, after all. And don’t get me started on cars, fashion, and houses.

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  3. I would not be hopeful about a productive dialogue Adam.

    Agellius is not wrong in what he says about why “environmentalism” came to be associated with the left in the1980s and 90s, but there also have long been traditions on the European and North American Right that are quite critical — even radically so — of modernism, statism, capitalism, and their regimes of exploitation, domination, limitless growth and scale. Rusty Reno, editor-in-chief of First Things, correctly identifies this critical tradition as reflected in Laudato Si as “anti-modernism” but wishes to make that a term of abuse and dismissal, as if no other kind of modernity other than the western brand is possible. Reno’s thinking is indicative of the way religious conservatives continue to shout down and purge their ranks of any who are not OK with the neoconservative/neoliberal world order. In fact most of their media, like FT, were constructed or came to be used primarily to spread a “movement” ideology and mete out “party discipline,” like Christianity’s routine beat-down of a former editor who came out in favor of gay marriage recently. These mouthpieces are used time and again to assassinate religious conservatives and liberals alike as heretics tempting us toward a collective suicide.

    On the matter of the pope’s encyclical, Reno believes Francis is saying western modernity has failed decisively and will be the death of us because it is in serious error. Reno disagrees; he thinks “the west” must be “strengthened,” and the pope is defecting from that cause in a dangerous revolutionary direction. This is a polite way of saying no dialogue on this topic is possible, which Reno has said more clearly many other times. Under his tenure Reno’s magazine has become more reactionary than one might have imagined possible even ten years ago. This is a man who sincerely sees himself as a Catholic conservative but also summarily dismisses anyone — including the putative head of his church — who can’t even be spun as believing that there is no civilized alternative to the current world order. Only someone deeply bound to ideology could come up with the revealing nonsense statement that our economic system and use of technology cannot be fundamentally criticized for the crises it causes because there is no other basis for solving crises. (This is the classic “Luddite” card middle-class religious conservatives play whenever someone makes a serious critique of technocapitalism.) The only potential good thing in Reno’s reaction is that he seems (maybe) willing to consider that “climate change” might be a real problem, although he also seems to be clinging to the idea that any “scientific consensus” on it is an “authoritarian” scam. Previously, holding that opinion at all, like support for gay marriage, Obamacare, “natural foods,” etc. seemed to function for Reno as a marker of people who are too stupid to take seriously at all.

    Reply
  4. ^”Christianity Today’s” recent beat down… (edit)

    Reply
  5. Agellius

     /  June 22, 2015

    Dan:

    You write, “Reno believes Francis is saying western modernity has failed decisively and will be the death of us because it is in serious error. Reno disagrees; he thinks “the west” must be “strengthened,” and the pope is defecting from that cause in a dangerous revolutionary direction. This is a polite way of saying no dialogue on this topic is possible, which Reno has said more clearly many other times.”

    I don’t read Reno that way at all (assuming you’re talking about Reno’s article titled “The Return of Catholic Anti-Modernism”, June 18, 2015).

    First, I think Reno is right about what Francis is saying, namely that Western modernity is in serious error, and the root of the error is the modern attitude towards truth and morals, that is, relativism. The relativistic attitude combined with capitalism and technology are truly frightening, because they leave us with no firm principles by which to govern our use of those things, or at best a flimsy grasp of those principles which we still acknowledge. This, Francis argues, is what has led us to this predicament and what makes it hard for us to deal with.

    Reno’s critique of Francis is that he has condemned Western modernity root and branch, while at the same time failing to lay out the Christian principles by which it might be redeemed, which you would think would be the main purpose of an encyclical. He fails to give “a natural-law framework for the proper development of technology”, or an “application of Catholic social doctrine to help us think in a disciplined way about how to respond to environmental threats, or how to reform global capitalism.” In other words Francis condemns modernity without offering any solutions to what ails it.

    Reno prefers the approach of John Paul and Benedict, which was “to restore the religious and moral basis for modernity’s positive achievements”. In other words, fix modernity rather than throwing it out with the bathwater: “Instead of the voice of denunciation, we need the Church’s counsel and guidance.”

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s the piece. Did you read the top comments? They say about the same things I did. The first points out there is in fact a section on “solutions” that echoes the Vatican II document Reno says Francis should have followed as a model. Maybe Reno just skimmed and saw what he wanted to. It’s a huge document. Do you really think this pope wants to “fight modernity root and branch?” That sounds like a polemical invention of Reno’s. By no stretch of the imagination is he seeking dialogue in this piece.

      Dismissing critique because it’s not solutions is a standard conversation ender for people who don’t wish to have one. People who really want to have a dialogue will embrace critique as a basis for starting to work toward difficult solutions in the dark. I was impressed this morning to see that type of response in a newsletter I get from the Center for Rural Affairs: http://www.cfra.org/news/150618/papal-encyclical-climate Had the pope proposed solutions, as long as they did not please Reno he would have criticized them as zealously as he has criticized Catholics and others who live and work a life of solutions that imply small over big, resilience over growth, limits over endless choices on demand.

      Reno’s reference to the last two popes is a shoutout to the magazine’s core neoliberal service of selling the vision and values of Wall Street to Main Street. Sometimes Reno struggles with the cognitive dissonance this occasionally causes him, but he’s good at curing it with moves like he makes in this attack piece. It’s a creative polemic that attempts to spin the last two popes as figures of moderation set off between Pius IX and Francis I. What moderate, memorable things did John Paul II and Benedict XVI say about economics, technology, or the environment? (Crickets….) Francis is no Pius IX. Pius was not only uncompromising, he laid out a numbered list of “errors” followed by the “answers” thereby suggesting Catholics should not think or need to think but simply obey. That is not Francis’ approach, and judging by the response he continues to get this is a HUGE difference.

      Reno likes denunciation — a lot. He does it frequently and sometimes without posing “constructive solutions.” In fact, he usually sounds much more pontifical than Francis but on his core issues his delivery and reactionary ethos is more like Pius, that old “prisoner of the Vatican.” Francis is seen as comfortable in the world as it is; Reno usually evokes the bunker mentality. He does not appreciate critique or solutions that do not jibe with with his own — especially from popes. Much easier to defame and dismiss them.

      Reply
  6. Here is a beautifully stated, appreciative response to Francis from a biologist at Dordt College, which is a CCCU member in the continental (Dutch) reformed tradition. http://inallthings.org/divorce-and-a-broken-home/

    As you can see in the text of his essay and the comment following, one of the main denominations connected with the school has praised and approved Francis’s encyclical, or at least its president has. This is something they’re able to relate to their own tradition as Abraham Kuyper did with Leo XIII who kicked off Catholic social teaching — primarily concerning economics and labor. (An extremely hostile blog post about Francis at FT is also linked to and questioned.)

    Maybe this indicates some possibility of serious dialogue, but it may also show the usual splits which are ideological and focused on politics and economics. Catholics and Protestants who agree on those matters have more in common and are more willing to connect with each other than those who don’t.

    Reply
  7. Agellius

     /  June 23, 2015

    Dan:

    Another conversation ender is dismissing someone’s arguments on the ground that they are nothing but polemic and spin intended to shut down dialogue, rather than taking his statements at face value and assuming that he means what he says. I don’t see Reno condemning the idea that there is a problem or that something needs to be done. I don’t see him “dismissing” Francis so much as disagreeing with his points of emphases. I don’t see him saying that “our economic system and use of technology cannot be fundamentally criticized for the crises it causes because there is no other basis for solving crises”. I don’t see why his article must be taken as an attempt to “shut down dialogue” rather than as a participation in dialogue. Dialogue after all is an exchange of ideas. The Pope gave his ideas and now Reno gives his. The Pope expressed his views in language every bit as strong as that used by Reno — leaving seemingly little room for disagreement. Why isn’t the Pope accused of trying to shut down dialogue?

    You write, “Pius was not only uncompromising, he laid out a numbered list of “errors” followed by the “answers” thereby suggesting Catholics should not think or need to think but simply obey. That is not Francis’ approach, and judging by the response he continues to get this is a HUGE difference.”

    I don’t see a substantial difference. Pius was a lot more concise in his condemnations than Francis in this particular encyclical. But Francis dishes out his share of concise condemnations as well (try googling the phrase “pope francis condemns”). (By the way the Syllabus of Errors is a numbered list of propositions that are condemned by the Church. However it doesn’t contain “answers”. Maybe you’re talking about some other document?)

    Reply
    • Francis is obviously not accused of shutting down dialogue because he keeps starting them very effectively. If you just don’t like how he is framing things or his views, then you can say that, but it’s a real stretch to say he’s shutting anything down.

      Take a look at the related FT blog post by Maureen Malarkey that is unvarnished polemic against the pope. She does not even try to be civil. The editorial staff’s implicit approval for that sort of writing should color how you read the material they deem fit for the printed journal. Both pieces really would not change a bit in their substance if they just came out and said they want everyone, including popes, to bow down to their construction of the neoliberal economic order, the Pax Americana, and for Malarkey the fracking industry. That is the way their first world economic and political interests are aligned, so understandably they wish to conform their religious beliefs to those interests and use the church (as it generally has been used) to validate a “preferential option for the predatory rich.”

      On the Syllabus of Errors, I was misremembering the format. I would describe it as a list of propositions that are condemned, so implicitly any position you take that might be seen as disagreeing is potentially condemned. The contrary and recommended thesis is pretty clear in statements like this shot at “liberalism” — “In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” I.e., we should retain the option and idea of the Catholic church as a national religious monopoly rather than toss it in the dustbin of history. What published statements has Francis put his name on that seem similar to that?

      Reply
  8. Agellius

     /  June 23, 2015

    Dan:

    You write, “Francis is obviously not accused of shutting down dialogue because he keeps starting them very effectively. If you just don’t like how he is framing things or his views, then you can say that, but it’s a real stretch to say he’s shutting anything down.”

    I never accused anyone of shutting anything down. But in my view if Reno is, then so is Francis.

    The comparison I understood you to be drawing between Francis and Pius IX was that Francis is “comfortable in the world as it is”, whereas Pius was prone to condemnations. My response is that Francis condemns things that he sees as evil just as summarily as Pius ever did. I don’t say that they necessarily condemn the same things, but it would be strange if they did since the issues they face aren’t the same. Francis hasn’t specifically condemned the proposition that Catholicism should never be the religion of the State, but then Pius never condemned transgenderism, gay marriage or abortion. Does that mean Pius was more tolerant of those things? No, he just wasn’t confronted with a widespread movement in their favor.

    Reply
    • I don’t see these as logical conclusions to draw, especially the kind of reciprocity and equivalences you assume. Do you not find it surprising and maybe *wrong* for Catholics (or even other Christians) to respond to a pope as if he is just another pundit from a news network they dislike?

      Reno’s context and language is different; it is a reaction to Francis with a clear goal of interpreting him unfavorably with an audience of more or less conservative Christians. I would say Reno’s language aims at discrediting, while Malarkey’s language aims at defaming, and they are together the set and the spike. (Reno’s depiction of Francis as a “dangerous revolutionary” sets up malarkey’s whole blog rant.) If they have any sense of strategy at all, they hope to be part of a viral message of reaction to the pope as a leftist, secularist stooge. The goal is to get people in their audience demo to believe “he is not one of us, he is not in line with our values and understanding of the church in the modern world — he is a dangerous radical who must be opposed.”

      Francis has a much more general purpose, audience, and no specific targets, but I suppose those with uneasy consciences may feel singled out even when they aren’t, and some decide to resist self-examination rather than go with it. Reno definitely resists letting anyone like Francis interrogate his own assumptions and views. (FT has a long history of this, but its arteries hardened a lot after RJN’s run–an impressive feat for Reno to pull off. In recent years there has been a relentless focus on gay marriage including one issue that had a feature stressing a point Benedict XVI made about Plato’s Symposium as a foundational statement about the right ordering of desire. Think about that for a minute.)

      The point of comparison between any of those popes should not be what they condemned and tolerated. That was not what I said. I would compare them based on how they condemned and affirmed and what effect it had. Pius was famously the “prisoner of the Vatican” by his own definition and behavior. The manner and context of his condemnations were deeply out of touch and disengaged with everyone unwilling to fight an unwinnable war of ultramontanists versus everyone else.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  June 23, 2015

        Dan:

        You write, “Do you not find it surprising and maybe *wrong* for Catholics (or even other Christians) to respond to a pope as if he is just another pundit from a news network they dislike?”

        Yes, I find it wrong for a Catholic to respond to a pope as if he is just another pundit. But it doesn’t follow that popes can’t be questioned or criticized.

        In reading Reno’s article I don’t see anything disrespectful to the Pope. The first half of the article is a summary of the points made in the encyclical, the second half is Reno’s reactions to it. His main points are (1) that “If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity”; (2) that “he shares [with Pius IX] a similar dire, global view of modernity as the epitome of godless sin”; (3) that “[he] offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world”; (4) that “There may be a strange genius in this”; (5) that “[he] encourages the humiliation of modernity and the West, seeing in its failure the seeds of repentance and return to God”; and (6) that Reno is skeptical of this approach.

        As a devout Catholic I see nothing disrespectful in either word or implication. I see the whole article as entirely within the bounds of constructive criticism and respectful dialogue.

      • Malarkey’s post is beyond disrespectful. Reno’s is something else, with the suggestion of danger and revolution. Unhinged and embarrassing maybe. Something like disrespect or condescension comes through in the way Reno seems to regard Francis as a naive idealist who doesn’t appreciate what powers he is meddling with.

        FT and people at it like Reno are nothing if not engaged in an adversarial and meddlesome relationship with modernity in every arena except war and economics. Reno simply wants popes to fight things like gay marriage, not climate change. The idea that a pope who is commanding greater respect and engaged interest than Reno could ever hope to garner himself is actually some kind of backwards reactionary is ridiculous and somewhat contradictory to the image of him as a mad genius or dangerous revolutionary.

        After all the global north has done to the south and the power shift that will inevitably occur in the future, Reno seems to think it is an encyclical like this — about care for the environment — that might touch off a “revolt” from former colonial subjects, the victims of apartheid and illegal wars, CIA-financed death squads and dictators… Really! I think he ought to have let his mind run over the “strange genius” a little more.

  9. Agellius

     /  June 23, 2015

    I would just note that on the same day Reno’s article was published, FT also published an article titled “Let’s Listen to the Pope on Climate Change” by Josiah Neeley. [ http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/06/lets-listen-to-the-pope-on-climate%5D

    Reply
    • They always have allowed a minority voice, but that is what it is, and Reno more than RJN seems to like to flail at it it. Neeley does a good job of decking him in his first paragraph. What gets into print is another matter.

      Reply

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