I’ve spent a couple blog posts giving the background on why I believe the Pope is wrong about climate change. Let me start this post by stating my areas of agreement with the Pope.
- I am not deligitimizing the overall, general issue of stewardship of God’s creation. I am not suggesting the Pope has no authority in this area, nor that he should be silent about these concerns. I am not even saying that the Pope has no right to an opinion on whether or not human-caused global warming (or climate change) is real. He, as does every person, has a right to an opinion. As Pope, he has the obligation to instruct the faithful. More generally speaking, it is proper and correct to challenge all of us as to whether or not we are striking the proper balance between respect for human rights and progress and respect for God’s creation.
- There should be many things that we see that should not be particularly debatable as either a good thing or a bad thing in the realm of stewardship of the earth. Dumping of toxins, breaking the law, leaving a plastic bottle in the woods – some are clearly more serious than others, but all are wrong. The Pope is correct to suggest that knowingly doing something that is harmful to the planet is sinful. This statement is not Gaia-worship, it is a simple acknowledgment that we have a responsibility we need to take seriously to keep this planet as healthy as possible, because God made it good, and also because it’s in our best interest to do so. No matter how pro-capitalism one might be, this should not be debatable.
- Consumerism is a somewhat strange word, but we should all be able to agree that, while the economic system is not inherently problematic, the human conditions of jealousy and greed are. You can point to any economic system ever put in place anywhere, and you will have one thing in common: greedy people will find a way to take advantage of other people, and will exploit the system to their gain. I personally believe that the Pope is often a bit too hard on capitalism, as if the system itself is flawed. Compared to any other system devised, I actually thing it produces the most superior of moral outcomes – you earn what you deserve (generally speaking) and it forces allocation of resources in the most efficient way for a thriving economy, which benefits everybody. Clearly, there are shortfalls, as will be the case with every system, and we continue to try to create the perfect variant of a social-capitalistic system, which will never happen. But having said all that, it is certainly worth noting the personal pitfalls of this system. Capitalism does offer the opportunity for great wealth. That’s not bad, but is the question is why is that wealth being pursued? It’s one thing if natural interests or a great idea that can add to the quality of life of others is the reason for the pursuit. It’s also another thing if an opportunity exists to make your life better without sacrificing other good things (God, family, etc.). It’s quite another if the drive is purely materialistic, and the time and effort is sacrificing time and energy on more idealistic pursuits. This is where capitalism, while not bad in and of itself, can be a source of temptation for those who may have a personal weakness in the area of covetousness or greed. This goes hand-n-hand, then, with the stewardship of creation. Most Corporations are good, all of which are filled with working people – I hate the generalization of all Corporations as somehow innately evil. This doesn’t mean that greed cannot infect the principal owners/board members of an organization. As Christians, we can both believe in the goodness of capitalism while speaking out against environmental injustices when they happen.
- There are grey areas in the area of stewardship that can be legitimately debated. Is it immoral to build a factory that will employ people who will be able to provide for their families if it means the endangered snail darter will be at serious risk? Is it immoral to shutter the entire project, causing community disruptions, lost jobs, and so forth because of an overscrupulous view of stewardship? Good and honest people will disagree on the moral high ground here. Perhaps there is a middle ground that makes sense. One thing is almost certain – not everyone will agree, and it’s almost impossible to say that one side is sinning and the other is not.
So, I think the Pope makes many great points, and challenges us to make sure we are not letting politics steer our religious or moral obligations. However, where I do take issue is moving from the moral directives to a much more specific proclamation of what our obligations are as a world community, as governments, and as individuals in response to the threat of human-caused climate change.
It is one thing to take a position that dumping a known toxin into a river is a sinful action, and it is quite another to suggest that driving a car is a sin if the option of a bus is available. If the moral instruction is based on a belief that fossil fuel use is causing destructive warming, it is understandable why that instruction takes place. But if that underlying premise is false, then the moral instruction is also false. Put differently, if I do not accept the science-based premise that leads to a particular moral instruction on the basis of that scientific premise – not on simply obstinate grounds, but on grounds of experience and research and (to the extent possible) unbiased human reasoning – then am I obligated to accept the moral instruction that is a response to the flawed scientific premise? This is different from just saying “I studied the Bible and I don’t believe in Purgatory.” That is not a scientific question that leads to a religious doctrine. So, I am not saying that whatever I don’t accept I don’t need to listen to. In fact, I accept that the moral issue of stewardship is an obligation on my part. It is the specific nature of this issue that I have a problem with.
One may simply ask, “What’s the big deal?” Well, it is a big deal, actually. If the Pope gives moral authority to governments, the UN, and other secular organizations on this issue, it sets the stage for a much more aggressive response with the justification that the Vatican is on board. I think the Pope, in his own way, has this vision of the goodness of they types of choices that will be made – people just decide to buy fewer things, drive less, think about the environment more, and participate less in the types of things that will drive climate change. Governments will do reasonable things that benefit everyone.
There is good there, and the good things are the things we should do anyway, irrespective of climate change. But going beyond personal choices, everything else is problematic even if the theory is correct. And if the theory is wrong, then everything else is horribly flawed. Governments will tax – inefficient, and a displacement of resources that can help people. Governments will regulate and restrict production, will deviate resources to unnecessary and expensive areas, and will be an overall drag on growth and incomes. But far worse will be the continuation and escalation of social engineering: (a) abortion on demand will continue, be promoted as a good, and will escalate in the areas of the world where it has yet to gain a foothold; (b) people will be encouraged to outright “fear” having children, further encouraging use of contraception, (c) personal property rights and use of property will continue to be diminished and attacked, and (d) marriage will continue to devolve into an institution of self-happiness rather than as an institution of rearing the next generation.
Now, the Pope doesn’t want fewer children via an increase in abortion and contraception. And he would condemn that approach. But the secular world doesn’t care what the Pope thinks, except when he thinks something they can use to advance their agenda. While it should not be the case that the Pope should never speak pastorally or on social justice issues due to the risk of progressives selectively choosing the words of his they want to use for their purposes, neither should the Pope dismiss or ignore the fact that this reality exists. He should understand the consequences of his instruction, and at the very least make it clear that when he speaks of these things, he condemns absolutely a number of the human “solutions” or agendas around this issue.
He should, in my opinion, also not speak so absolutely about the truth of climate change as a result of human activity, but instead focus more generally on environmental stewardship and our moral responsibility.