It is getting borderline entertaining to watch the “prebuttals” on the upcoming encyclical. One could comment on how the wide access to immediate media has made it easier (as I am doing right now!) to engage in a debate about an encyclical we haven’t seen. And to be honest, we all know how this will work: the encyclical will appear, there will be 2-3 days (maybe a week) where the media is filled with it, and in that time its supposed impact will be determined. So everyone’s looking to be prepared to “control the narrative” right out of the gate. And given the example of Evangelii Gaudium, the thing is likely to be long! (Aside: I am being a little sarcastic. The impact of papal writings is obviously much more long-term. But no doubt there will be a surge of attention.)
These early analyses often tell us much about how a given commentator wants us to read the encyclical. In a sense, what is being given away here are the hermeneutics. Short of the strategy of simply un-writing parts of encyclicals, it is fair to try to comment on the encyclical in terms of what is crucial. This is not simply “spin,” but a reasonable exercise in interpretation. So to compare Fr. Tom Reese’s five things “to look for” and Fr. Robert Sirico’s recent five-minute youtube video laying out “what will be” in the encyclical is to tell us some important things about why Catholics are debating this issue, and in particular, why we are debating it so strongly in the American context.
Both Fathers are clear, measured, and reasonable, so they are good benchmarks for the responses from different perspectives in the Church. And it is important to note above all that there is fundamental common ground in the statements. (1) Both statements insist we have moral obligations to care for creation properly, not (as Fr. Sirico puts it) in a “callous and irresponsible way.” And both root this claim in the idea that creation is an ordered gift from God. (2) Both statements indicate what has also been said in other quarters: that the teaching here is well-established by the prior two popes, and rests on traditional Catholic theology. (3) Both appeal to the strong moral imperative to help the poor. It is gratifying to see this language becoming a required standard in Catholic statements about anything, from any side.
How then do they differ? And how can their differences best be negotiated in the reception of the encyclical? I highlight two differences on the likely theological contents, and then two differences on prudential questions related to receiving and acting on the encyclical.
1. While the two documents agree on an appropriate understanding of God’s creation as good and to be cared for responsibly, the emphasis in explaining this doctrine is different. If creation is an “ordered gift,” for Fr. Reese, the emphasis is on “gift,” whereas for Fr. Sirico, the emphasis is on “order.” Fr. Reese is keen to point out St. Paul’s claim that all creation is groaning for redemption, whereas Fr. Sirico reminds us right off the bat of the unique human dignity involved in dominion. Neither explicitly denies the other’s claim, but the emphasis is different. That could be because each judges differently which message is more “needed” – about the dignity of creation or about human dignity within creation. I think this is a false choice. “Dominion” in the image of God actually should heighten the importance of environmental responsibility, of adhering to creation’s “grammar.” The “dominion” teaching has been abused in the past, but insofar as it reflects the imago Dei, such “dominion” obviously should be exercised with care, restraint, gentleness, mercy, and deep wisdom. The central place of the command “to till and to keep” in Caritas in Veritate and in Cardinal Turkson’s Trocaire lecture indicates that the core issue is not whether creation has intrinsic value nor whether humans have unique dignity (both are true!), but how humans have real moral responsibility for right use, rather than reckless exploitation.
2. Thus, a second difference: The two Fathers agree that the message will be “moral,” but again, they take this in different directions. Fr. Reese emphasizes the massive potential human suffering due to climate change, whereas Fr. Sirico takes the opportunity to indicate the link between respect for natural ecology and human ecology (what he calls “the natural moral law”). Again, it would be helpful to agree with both claims here, each without overlooking the other. This will be very hard, as these statements indicate: Fr. Reese says nothing about the human ecology connection in his five points, and Fr. Sirico says nothing about the calamitous outcomes possible if we do not change. Yet, to say both things together could do a great deal of good in really bringing people together to serious shared work on this issue. Once conservatives even acknowledge the enormous possibilities of destruction due to climate change, it is hard to maintain that it is “not a big deal if it’s a few degrees warmer.” On the other hand, liberals need to recognize that sayings like “the throwaway culture” and “the culture of waste” quite evidently point toward things like the glorification of hook-ups, sexual violence, abortion, artificial reproductive technologies, and the like.
3. A third issue is not so much on content, but on what effects the encyclical might have in terms of promoting support for the environmental movement. Here the two Fathers seem more diametrically opposed. Fr. Reese indicates that the encyclical will “embrace the environmental movement without agreeing with every position,” and will “politely disagree about birth control while working together to save the planet.” Fr. Sirico, on the other hand, cautions strongly against environmentalists who practically “worship nature” and voices a clear suspicion of the UN. This difference is clearly prudential; it is about political cooperation. But notice how the prudential judgments are framed quite differently: is the disagreement with secular environmentalism simply a matter of disagreement over sexual norms, and in particular contraception? Or is it a much deeper disagreement that hits at the heart of monotheistic belief? Even Fr. Reese falls into this, by saying that the encyclical will make environmentalism mainstream and not about “gaia worshippers”. But most environmentalism right now – especially mainstream environmentalism active in the public sphere – is nowhere near Gaia worship. Bill McKibben is arguably the most important and visible public voice on environmentalism on the Progressive Left, and the guy is a grounded, social-gospel-like Methodist. On the whole, environmentalists are wonky Al Gore types, not New Age neo-Pagans. How to cooperate with political movements is prudential, but let’s engage the actual, existing environmentalists, and not stereotypes.
4. A fourth issue is the question about differing “prudential judgments” about economic growth generally and climate change specifically. In principle, neither of these are doctrines of Catholic theology or morality. In practice, at least all natural moral doctrine (=natural law) must have some purchase on “reality.” Fr. Sirico and Fr. Reese seem to have opposing judgments about climate change, and their opposing judgments about climate change are possibly not unrelated to their beliefs about how to help the poor economically. Fr. Reese says the encyclical will “accept the scientific consensus.” Fr. Sirico disappointingly says “but of course science is never settled” – a point that should be applied as vigorously (or more so) to some claims of economic science as to atmospheric science! This is really a bad place for the discussion of the encyclical to happen. Why? Because an extremely small number of people are in a position to offer expert evaluation of all the science and modeling involved, and in fact we would also have to evaluate the relative expertise of the experts. This is one point where the actual wording of the encyclical will be important, because while it cannot judge the science, it is likely to state carefully how the science we have should shape moral judgment.
As with economic matters, Catholic commentators should make reasonable distinctions about what is more or less settled, as I expect the encyclical to do. It is hard to accept the claim that burning large amounts of carbon dioxide does not contribute significantly to an observed warming of the planet’s atmosphere, and a number of other related observations. It seems imprudent to believe this, and to me, a crucial reason to say it is imprudent is: a significant amount of carbon emissions clearly are a result of luxury and “superdevelopment,” rather than accepting simpler lifestyles and social structures. This materialism is clearly contrary to the teachings of Jesus, John Paul II, and Benedict. Fr. Sirico is on acceptable prudential ground when he cautions that environmental regulation must be attentive to economic growth, and to the workings of a global economy that has in recent decades lifted millions out of poverty. It would also be prudential, in my judgment, to recognize that a significant amount of that growth is (as Pope Benedict clearly stated, in CV 49-51) due to excessive lifestyles that are particularly energy intensive, and that the growth of these lifestyles is unsustainable from a planetary or a human perspective. Thus, at the very least, global economic growth needs to shift to a more sustainable, less materialistic path. Once we agree on that, constructive proposals about how to do that would and should be debated. A carbon tax is the most obvious supported by economists, because it allows individual actors to readjust trade-offs in favor of cleaner choices however they see fit. Such a carbon tax can be attractive to free-marketers because it allows taxation to shift away from other things (like savings) that are less energy-intensive. Moreover, some of these choices are a matter of making it easier and more transparent for people to respond to price signals. We all know many people who will obsess over saving 5 cents a gallon on gas; one of the reasons for this is because we post the price of gas to the penny on big signs that people can see everywhere, and that people can switch easily to another station if the price is lower. A carbon tax would be helped by making energy cost and use on the grid as transparent. Notice that these proposals are not about a market-state binary – they are about state actions to shape the moral (and natural) ecology in which markets work.
Fr. Reese notes that the encyclical is likely not to include much in the way of specific policy recommendations. It is more likely to provide policy parameters, such as not disproportionately burdening poorer nations. Thus, these final two points seem particularly important for local bishops, who can effectively address the ecological and policy circumstances faced in their particular country or region. In the US, for example, the important thing may not be advocating for exact policies, but rather the insistence that both parties must come together to address the problem, rather than allowing this issue to remain a pro-/anti- wedge issue (which is was not a few decades ago).
There will be a lot of inertia, from both within and outside of the Church, to cover this encyclical in terms of how Catholics are divided on this. But this could also be an occasion for Catholics to build bridges, to realize that understanding the beauty of God’s creation and how we are distorting it through our misuse is something that can weave together all of Catholic theology and many areas of Catholic morality to make clear its distinctive vision on an issue of genuinely global importance.