Ethics & Public Policy Center

5 Things About Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment the Media Probably Won’t Tell You

Published in The Week on June 19, 2015


Everybody’s excited about Pope Francis’ new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (don’t forget the apostrophe!), whose title comes from Saint Francis of Assisi’s famous Canticle of the Sun.

They’re excited because, well, it is exciting to see the pope take a strong stand in favor of the environment. But maybe it’s also because the encyclical seems to confirm a media narrative (which Francis is savvily exploiting) of Francis as the cool, progressive pope, in stark contrast to his mean, reactionary predecessors.

The need for the media to obey The Narrative means there are some things about the encyclical you won’t hear. For example:

1. Francis is in total continuity with his predecessors
As the encyclical itself notes, papal concern with the environment dates all the way back to Pope Paul VI and his 1971 work, Octogesima adveniens. It was also near and dear to John Paul II’s heart, who coined the phrase “human ecology” to describe the Catholic spin on environmentalism, which keeps the value of human life at the center of its concerns (more on which below).

The environment was a particularly strong concern of Pope Francis’ direct predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the supposedly grouchy conservative with whom Francis is so often contrasted. Benedict was so keen on protecting the environment that he was briefly dubbed “the Green Pope” (a title that will now doubtlessly redound to Francis). He had solar panels put up all over the Vatican and signed a deal to make the Vatican the world’s first carbon-neutral state.

On both the form and the substance, Francis represents a continuity with papal teaching, not a break.

2. The encyclical doesn’t represent a “reconciliation” between Catholic doctrine and science
The encyclical reiterates the scientific consensus on climate change and other issues. Some people might try to tell you that this represents a supposed attempt to “reconcile” Catholic teaching and science. That’s what they also said when Pope Francis endorsed evolution, conveniently ignoring the fact that popes had been doing precisely that since the 1950s.

The fact of the matter is that Catholic doctrine explicitly endorses scientific conclusions, saying, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, that “truth cannot contradict truth.” Therefore religious doctrines (if they are true) have nothing to fear from scientific investigation. The Catholic Church has historically produced some of the world’s greatest scientists, and even today the Vatican observatory stands as a testament to the church’s commitment to scientific inquiry.

It’s still very nice to see the pope endorse the science of climate change, given how important the issue is. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s some radical break with Catholic history on the whole religion-and-science issue.

3. There is still no Gaia
One strand in environmentalist philosophy holds that what truly matters is the Earth, which is looked at as a living, perhaps even conscious organism, with human beings cast as a sort of parasite making her sick — the “Gaia” thesis. This is why many Christian thinkers, particularly of the conservative type, have been wary of environmentalism. Christian doctrine says that humans have a special role in God’s plan; a role that makes them stewards of the Earth, which means they shouldn’t treat it recklessly. The distinction can seem abstruse, but it actually matters. An environmental vision that denies the fundamental value of human beings is anti-humanistic and ultimately denies what makes life worth living, as the French (atheist, for what it’s worth) philosopher Luc Ferry pointed out in his seminal book The New Ecological Order.

As noted above, this is part of why John Paul II spoke of a “human ecology,” to distinguish the more humanistic kind of environmentalism from Gaia environmentalism. And no surprise there: Pope Francis is no Gaia worshipper. It turns out he’s still Catholic, and his encyclical stands in that tradition.

4. Francis is still against abortion and contraception
What’s the connection between environmentalism and abortion and contraception?

Another reason Catholics are sometimes wary of environmentalism is because so much of environmentalist thought seems to be connected to the insane delusions of the overpopulation crowd.

If you think the Earth is Gaia and humans are a parasite on her, then you will welcome family planning procedures, such as abortion and contraception, that the Church opposes. More generally, if you have a zero-sum view of the world, you will seek to link protecting the environment with population control.

The pope will have none of that crap. It’s perfectly possible to combine care for the environment and population growth, he writes.

5. Everything is connected
A Biblical phrase you’ll often find in Catholic documents is “seamless garment,” which reflects the idea that everything in Catholic teaching is connected. Sometimes people will try to separate, say, social issues from economic issues, but those two things can’t be separated, at least in the internal logic of Catholic doctrine. For example, you won’t have a strong economy without strong families, and so disconnecting the two is illusory. Similarly, you can’t discuss the environment without ultimately discussing abortion and contraception, because those things really are linked.

To me, this is one of the most beautiful — dare I say, divine? — aspects about Catholic teaching in general, and which is so well reflected in this encyclical by Pope Francis (as well as the previous encyclical by Benedict). It’s a vision of a true “human ecology.” He’s not just saying, “The planet is not doing too well so I guess we have to do some green stuff.” He is offering a genuine vision for a renewal of the entire planet, linking together all issues in this seamless garment. To me, that’s one of the things that makes Catholic thinking so endlessly fascinating.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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