Pope Francis and a Third Way for Environmental Stewardship

By Andreas Widmer Published on June 21, 2015

Laudato Si is certainly causing quite a stir, and may succeed in making “encyclical” a familiar word even for non-Catholics. It speaks of some of the most contentious topics of the day: the environment, global warming, and economic development. Of course, these are all topics on which faithful Catholics and people of good will disagree.

But throughout the document we also encounter the Church’s perennial teachings on creation and the role of human beings in creation. Unfortunately, the controversies around carbon dioxide and high finance make it easy to miss the theological core. As with many such issues, there is a tendency to create an “us vs. them” attitude around our proposed causes and solutions to our common challenges. Especially as it pertains to the environmental question, there is wide spectrum of opinions but two extremes: What I would call the “Chicken Little” camp and the “Bart Simpson” camp.

Briefly, and simplistically, the two camps’ views are the following.

The “Chicken” camp uses its scientific findings and assumptions to argue that humans are destroying the world and should be “constrained.”… That anything we do to nature is bad. That we are essentially parasites, whose numbers and influence must be reduced. It is the current incarnation of the old Malthusian argument calling for immediate and complete government control over human behavior. In some ways this movement is becoming a new secular religion spanning the globe.

The “Bart” camp is the other extreme. It finds the holes in the science and logic of the “Chicken” camp, not from a careful study of the evidence but out of indifference to the creation. It insists that nature has no value apart from its use, that there’s no need to worry, that it’s silly to fret about the well being bats and birds and rivers, that the only thing that matters is maximizing human choices.

We’re often served two extreme views where neither really appeals to most of us. Because of the bad alternatives, most people end up not engaging at all.

Enter Pope Francis.

The Church has a long history of social teaching, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum that addressed the new situation families faced in light of the industrial revolution to John XXII’s Pacem in Terris which dealt with the nuclear threat of the cold war.

Many of the encyclicals and papal writings included a concern for the natural, economic and cultural environments. Francis draws from and extends that teaching with Laudato Si.

What encyclicals do — given the nature of the papacy and its special charism — is to propose a spiritual setting for our thoughts and disposition in finding solutions to contemporary situations. Encyclicals are not policy papers that equate prudential judgments with perennial doctrines; they are spiritual dissertations meant to inspire and to provoke. They propose mental models for thinking about our lives and the opportunities and challenges we face.

Predictably, the “Chicken” and “Bart” camps are going to read this encyclical and when they find something that aligns with their claims, declare: “See, even the pope agrees with us!” That is the nature of the beast in politics. I doubt very much that they will make many “converts” based on such arguments.

What I hope Laudato Si will inspire is a much wider search for a “Third Way” for environmental stewardship, one that puts human persons, families and communities at its center.

Francis in this encyclical calls for an integral approach to developing the human ecology. He criticizes foundational ideas of the current conventional “solutions.” He condemns population control as well as crony capitalism (though he never uses that phrase). He condemns the throwaway culture and praises some benefits of innovation. … But the letter shouldn’t be used a club the beat down those who wish to debate the best ways to care for the environment and to lift the poor out of poverty. Indeed, the Holy Father explicitly calls for such debate.

Let’s pray that the encyclical will help people of good will, who reject both the Chicken Little and the Bart Simpson extremes, to transcend the current divide, have an honest debate and build a thriving human ecology.



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