Whether in the classroom or in casual conversation, one of the most persistent challenges I encounter as a Catholic moral theologian comes from those who argue, sometimes smugly and sometimes with sadness, that while virtuous action and social solidarity built on respect for human life may be great ideals, they simply aren’t realistic. Yes, they may say, factory farming is terrible, but it’s just not “realistic” to expect people to give up their cheap, convenient meats. Sure, honesty and generosity in relationships and business are noble ideals, but cheating and selfishness are far more common—and no one wants to be a sucker. Loving enemies and seeking non-violent ways of resolving conflict will lead to domination by those with fewer moral qualms, just as gun control measures will mean that only criminals will have firearms. I could go on, but at the heart of all of these objections is the claim that a moral perspective—particularly one built on Christian conviction–is out of touch with reality, perhaps well-meaning but ultimately naïve.
While I have yet to discuss Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home with undergraduate ethics classes, I anticipate similar objections from students this fall, as I’ve noticed a theme of “realism” among many of the critical responses to the encyclical in the first week since its official release. Indeed, the pope writes that “some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment” and thus remain passive or complacent (217). Many of the usual suspects argue that Laudato Si’ is “well-intentioned” but “economically flawed” in its critique of the free market (#109, e.g.). Others take issue with an idealized and overly harmonious view of the natural world or a “naïve confidence in even greater concentrations of power in the state.” Even those who claim to appreciate and support the document’s overall message—like my local bishop—argue that many of the Pope’s specific recommendations, such as his call to decrease reliance on fossil fuels (#165), are “not economically feasible.” In some cases this is a matter of differing prudential judgments, as David Cloutier discussed in a post last week, but in other cases it seems that the divergence is more fundamental.
For example, in an op-ed column that ran several days ago, David Brooks argued that beyond the encyclical’s “1970s-style doom-mongering,” what he found “hardest to accept” was “the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony, and love, and that arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.” In contrast, Brooks claims that “moral realists . . . should be able to worship and emulate a God of perfect love and still appreciate systems, like democracy and capitalism, that harness self-interest. But Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world.” After pointing to the economic successes of capitalism in Asia and the potential benefits of fracking, Brooks concludes with the statement that “The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent—the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.”
Intentionally or not, Brooks here echoes Reinhold Niebuhr, the Christian theologian most closely associated with realism in the modern period. In an essay on “Augustine’s Political Realism,”[i] Niebuhr defines realism as “the disposition to take all factors of a social and political situation, which offer resistance to established norms, into account, particularly the factors of self-interest and power.” He quotes Machiavelli’s definition of the realist as one who follows “the truth of the matter rather than the imagination of it,” implying that idealists “are subject to illusions about social realities, which indeed they are.” Niebuhr’s distinctive take on realism situates it within a theological anthropology that finds the root of self-interest and conflict in human freedom—that is, in the very same capacity for self-transcendence that makes creative love and selflessness possible. Contrary to Brooks’ benign assessment of self-interest (“qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good”), Niebuhr maintains that “love rather than self-love is the law of his existence, in the sense that man can only be healthy, and his communities at peace, if man is drawn out of himself and saved from the self-defeating consequences of self-love.” There is, in Niebuhr’s view, a tragic dimension of the history of humankind, which can at best achieve a tolerable balance of powers, never a true peace.
So in calling for a recognition of ecological interdependence, concern for the poor, and the development of ecological virtues, is Francis the idealistic “dove” that critics like Brooks claim he is? Is Laudato Si’ out of step with “reality” or economically flawed?
While Francis argues that “We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other” (208), his is not a simple optimism, as is indicated by the fact that Laudato Si’ has also been criticized for being anti-modern in its pessimistic assessment of technological “progress,” free market economics, and industrialization. Moreover, early in the document, Francis recognizes that “many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (14). He is aware of “the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices” through various forms of denial (59). Of course, pessimism can also be divorced from reality by overestimating or misunderstanding problems or by failing to see the existence of hope and opportunity—but again, I don’t think that Francis is guilty of these accusations. Despite his assessment of the seriousness of the ecological crisis—an assessment that many scientifically informed people share—the concrete suggestions that Francis offers indicate a belief that a “bold cultural revolution” (114) is possible. Without advocating a “uniform recipe,” (180), Francis does discuss the importance of education and formation through “little daily actions” such as avoiding the use of paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings (perhaps by giving up meat), using public transport or carpooling, or planting trees (211). “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world,” he writes (212). Pope Francis is calling for much more than changed habits of individuals, of course, but it certainly seems that such individual conversions and changed habits are necessary if Francis’ grander hopes have a chance of success.
Yet here is where I personally feel difficulty responding to critics of a moral point of view (whether those online or those in the classroom), as it is difficult to feel hope that the major economic and political powers and structures of our world are likely to change anytime soon. In truth, I am much more concerned with answering the objections of students than responding to someone like Brooks, except insofar as the ideas of the latter are also reflected in those of the former. In the classroom, when confronted with claims that social change is not realistic, my default response is often to emphasize the personal nature of the challenge, to focus on the “little daily actions” that each of us are capable of in our own lives–but I frequently wish that I had more to offer and I am interested in how others of you who teach undergraduates respond to pessimistic pragmatism in your students.
At the end of the day, it seems one must turn–as Francis does–to a transcendent source of hope. To again quote Niebuhr, “An adequate religion is always an ultimate optimism which has entertained all the facts which lead to pessimism. Its optimism is based upon a faith in a transcendent center of meaning which is never fully expressed in any partial value and is never exhausted in any concrete historical reality. But though it is not exhausted in any such reality, it is incarnated there.”
This seems to be precisely the posture that Francis adopts in Laudato Si’.
 In The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 123-141.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, 6.