It has not been unknown in regard to the Church’s social teaching, that people can salute or even admire the ideals involved and yet have the reservation that, it’s all well and good but, really, isn’t it a bit ingenuous? That is to say, it doesn’t seem practical to most people, though we could applaud the saint who tries it and actually makes it seem possible. But if everyone tried that we’d be at the mercy of every con artist or we’d all be dead–or needlessly inconvenienced!
And, of course, some of the critics of Pope Francis’ teaching in his encyclical, Laudato Si, are saying just that.
However, how I read the encyclical and the criticisms, I don’t see a divide between pragmatism and Gospel idealism, but the difference between how the status quo assesses our environmental situation and how the scientific community views the problem. I’m not saying, of course, that Pope Francis is not speaking from the demands of the Gospel; he is. But I see nothing of adolescent idealism in what he has to see. What I read is that he is very well informed by scientific investigation. His urgency is not simply moral but the recognition that if we do nothing now, there won’t be much future left to the human enterprise–and very soon! If the Pope is questioned for not writing about abortion, for example (and he’s certainly not pro choice!), those critics are not realizing that the more pressing issue is whether human beings, adults, children, human fetuses (not to mention animals, plants or anything above the level of a cockroach) can be sustained by the world we’re destroying.
One example or the criticism to which I refer would be the reaction of U.K. economist Philip Booth, a Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. Without minimizing the Pope’s respect for the rights of the poor, he feels that the proposed “austerity approach” (or “less is more”) is counterintuitive to the Holy Father’s goals. It is economic development (a free-trade or capitalist economy) that can provide a higher of standard of living for more people; for example, death from heat is 80% less in the United States where air-conditioning is more available and the benefits will “soon be widespread in India”, according to Booth.
However, it isn’t traditional Roman Catholic asceticism or self-denial that Pope Francis is advocating. Environmentalists are recognizing that we do not have the natural resources (e.g., fossil fuel) and the technology to continue to support what our cities consume in the future. Even with roof-top gardens in Manhattan, our overgrown cities are black holes of consumption that do not contribute, do not renew what they consume. The sort of consumption and the rate of consumption we in the “developed” countries now practice literally has to future. To spread around that strategy of free-market capitalism (and its accompanying, necessary consumerism) will simply quicken the depletion of resources. It’s the infrastructures and the supporting technology that need change.
What the pope proposes is not austerity for its own sake but a transition in practice to provide for more people because the potential we are employing is limited. If there is asceticism involved, it is for the common good and the survival–and perhaps evolution–of the human species. The problem is not austerity but the denial of natural limits. Facing those facts can terrifying because of the enormity of the challenge. But denying the enormous and terrible problem is no solution.
to be continued…