Pope Francis’s Eco-Encyclical Shows How Catholicism Is Neither Right Nor Left

I’m glad that Pope Francis has written an encyclical (Laudato Si) on the importance for humans to care for the environment.

Because, quite simply, God created the natural world and has commanded us to be good stewards of it. That is neither left nor right. It is simply Catholic.

A Thought-Drowning Furor

Unfortunately, a furor has already grown over the very fact that Pope Francis has written the encyclical, before the ink has even dried on it.

Two persons yelling out to each other
Constructive dialogue goes out the window

How we should care for the environment is a deeply politically polarized issue. As such, people get up in arms the instant that anything related to it is mentioned: pollution, emissions, global warming, climate change, climate disruption, and so on.

So it is unsurprising that his encyclical was being lambasted before anyone had even read it. Like many other contentious topics in our society today, the furor drowns out actual thought and respectful dialogue.

The Wisdom of Pope Francis

Pope Francis introduces his encyclical’s theme: care for the environment and responsible development, especially to help the poor:

Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.

He decries pollution and other well-known problems, but also jumps quickly to affirming man-made global warming:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.

Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.

I’ll say more on global warming shortly, but regardless of whether it is occurring and caused by humans, the latter statement Pope Francis makes, that we should change our consumerist, throwaway lifestyles, is accurate and urgent.

Pope Francis goes on to write about the importance of water, both its purity, wise use, and access for all people. Then he talks about biodiversity and extinction–all important topics when discussing ecology.

He then expands his focus to include social inequalities and injustices found in inner cities and in the concentration of resources among the wealthy at the exclusion–both physically and socially–of the poor.

I was pleased to see that the Pope discusses how many people push for contraception and lowering the birth-rate as the solution to our problems:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”.

Obviously for us as Catholics this is problematic in the extreme and cannot be condoned.

In the next section, Pope Francis turns to the theological basis for ecology: the Bible, sacred Tradition, and in particular the words of Jesus. He presents solid Catholic social teaching on the fact that humanity is a communion where the fruits of the earth are for the benefit of everyone.

What I Wished Pope Francis Had Excluded

Global warming and climate change.

Pope Francis wrote about anthropogenic (man-made) climate change, going with the popular consensus that it is a fact.

Firstly, these statements are in the area of science and so are not to be considered dogmas of the the Faith. Pope Francis is going with the popular opinion on these matters to get into the more important aspects of the Church’s teachings on caring for the environment.

I wish that Pope Francis had not included statements about global warming or climate change, because 1) they are not scientifically proven, 2) they are not concerning faith and morals, and 3) they are used by secular ideologues to promote anti-human agendas.

her1Quite frankly, it confuses the faithful when contested scientific opinions are intermixed with the presentation of Church doctrines. Which statements are binding upon Catholics? Which are not?

He could have included everything else he wrote about, without opining on climate change, because whether anthropogenic climate change is happening or not, the bottom line for Catholics is still the same: care for people and the environment in prudent and wise ways.

He could have omitted those opinions, left the controversy to the scientists and public at large, and instead put the spotlight on some examples of ways humans are harming the environment that neither the Left nor the Right pay attention to. Then he could have discussed the innovative ways that people–including Catholics–are solving these problems to improve the environment.

Which brings us to…

What I Wished Pope Francis Had Included

I wished that Pope Francis had delved into actual solutions to the problems facing our world and how we treat it.

He does write in a general way on ecosystems, which comes close to what I was hoping for:

We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities.

The milk stanchion with Miss Cordelia Jane in it
The milk stanchion with Miss Cordelia Jane in it

But I would love to have seen him include detailed paragraphs on permaculture in small-scale farming, for instance, and on decrying the evils of conventional agriculture.

In my book Farm Flop, I describe one of the glaring problems that we saw out in the country, problems that no one talks about:

Neighbors drenched their fields with Grazon, a broad-leaf herbicide that people use on their pasture when they want a pure grass stand. The positive side of it is that it kills off weeds like Silverleaf Nightshade, Pig weed, Dove weed, and Purple Thistle. The bad side is that it kills every other non-grass plant as well, even good ones.

And the scientists at Texas A&M had discovered that Grazon remained the soil for months and months. Even if the grass was cut for hay and baled, the Grazon was still in it—we learned this lesson when we used some Grazon-laden hay as sheet mulch in one garden bed, and all the plants died. It could even pass through the manure of animals intact.

Here in central Texas, rural land should be a healthy mixture of trees, bushes, and grasses, but over the past two hundred years the trees were mostly cut down to make room for tractors to easily go up and down fields, cutting hay or planting and harvesting crops. Ironically, it meant that out in the country we had less birds and squirrels and trees than we did living in the suburbs of Austin!

This line from Pope Benedict, quoted by Pope Francis, is prescient:

“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.

Friends of ours in Kansas told us how the wheat farmers there, after cutting the wheat in summer, left the fields bare, without any cover crop, and the hot sun baked the ground, increasing the ambient temperature by over ten degrees after the wheat harvest was taken.

Conventional Agriculture’s Ills

But even these bad practices pale in comparison to how conventional farming is done today.

gm1Farms have centralized in the past fifty years to where relatively few owners own huge tracts of acreage. They buy GMO seeds from the big chemical companies (Monsanto, Dow, etc.) and then douse the plants with herbicide to kill the weeds.

Cows are raised in pasture for the first part of their life but then sent to the feedlot to fatten them up quickly for the sale barn. This makes their manure, which should be an asset, into a pollution and transportation problem, because it is so highly concentrated in one location (the feedlot).

Similar problems exist with CAFO chicken operations and pig lagoons. My family in the Panhandle of Texas fought for years (unsuccessfully) to prevent a big pig corporation from moving in upwind from them. They failed, and the pig lagoons were created, smelling terribly and using up vast amounts of water in an already fast-depleting aquifer.

We Need Another Encyclical

When we are doing such obviously awful things to the environment, an eco-encyclical is a no-brainer. But what Pope Francis cannot do is write the follow-up encyclical that describes in detail how to solve these problems.

matild1We need an encyclical on pastured beef and poultry, one permaculture and guilds, on water systems and keylining and contour farming.

Since he can’t write it, we as the laity need to do so. We need to write books and establish sustainable farms and rebuild agrarian Catholic community like the original Catholic Land Movement attempted to do.

Katie and I tried to play our part in this, but ultimately for various reasons we had to give up on the farming dream. That said, you can take us out of the farm but not the farm out of us. We have created a garden in our suburban lot that is already producing vegetables and fruit, plus making habitat for butterflies, snakes, bees, spiders, and soil life.

Why Isn’t Pope Francis Focusing On Real Threats?

Some friends of mine expressed their concern and frustration that Pope Francis spent so much time on an eco-encyclical, instead of raising awareness and an outcry on weightier matters like abortion, the widespread loss of faith in the world, the plummeting birth rates in the West (including in Europe and in Italy), the horrific rise of radical Islam, and so on.

I can sympathize to a degree with this desire. While the environment is important, 1) writing an eco-encyclical and mentioning anything about man-made climate change plays into the hands of the political Left, whose policies are contrary to the Catholic Church’s is almost every way, and 2) the health of the natural world at this moment is not the gravest threat to people and to the truth of God.

Jesus please rescue her
Jesus please rescue her

When women and girls are being sold as sex slaves by ISIS, is raising the flag about caring for nature the most pressing issue?

No. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t decry both wrongs. It doesn’t mean he can’t or shouldn’t write about the Catholic teachings on people and the environment.

His eco-encyclical is in fact needed, as I have supported with examples in this post. But in our age of sound bites and co-opting of messages, such a work is too easily spun, subverted, and prooftexted for out-of-context passages to seek to line up Pope Francis and the Catholic Church on a particular side, and the side that can do that most readily is the Left, a deadly enemy and persecutor of the Church and her people.

But the bottom line is that Pope Francis is the bishop of Rome, and I am not. I am a Catholic and therefore faithful to him and the Church. He has a greater understanding than I do of the needs of Catholics around the world.

What the Left And Right Should Do

I am glad that Pope Francis wrote this encyclical. I find it helpful and can read it within the rich Catholic tradition from which it springs.

The political Left should read it carefully and seek to understand the healthy and deep perspective from which it comes. They should avoid taking quotes out of context to try to proof-text their own opinions on climate change and what should be done about it.

left-right-politicsThe political Right should, first of all, actually read the encyclical and resist the urge to have a knee-jerk anti-ecology reaction to it. Pope Francis is not a Leftist tree-hugger who prioritizes bald eagle eggs over unborn human babies. Rather, he is a deep thinker and Gospel-believer who infuses environmental concerns with the true understanding of God and the human person, and how we are made to live in this world.

The Right should consider the wisdom given and the extensive Catholic thought on this subject. They should consult their faithful Catholic friends who have given much thought to these areas, especially those who follow the Catholic Land Movement and its principles.

Amid the noise and clamor of the talking heads about Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical, my hope is that some sane voices will rise and be noticed who can speak intelligently and wisely about what he wrote and how we can make practical application of the ideas he shared.

Too much to hope for? Perhaps, but I’m Catholic, so I am always confidently hope-ful!

We can and must care for our world. We have developed sound ways of doing so, that balance economic and technological growth with prudent care of ecosystems. Let’s hope that we can take a big step forward in doing so, beginning one family and community at a time.

The Yeoman and the Cog: Rebutting Seth Godin

Brandon Vogt often shares stuff by entrepreneurial/productivity guru Seth Godin. And I always find his ideas interesting; he’s a future thinker kind of guy, a visionary in terms of where technological work is heading and how we should adapt to it.

But I’m here to show a more excellent way than his solution for how to avoid being replaced in your job.

Briefly, his premise is that, in the globally competitive marketplace, in what he thinks is a recession that will never truly end, you must become indispensable in your company. Someone who connects people, forges ahead where there is no path yet trodden, and serves as an irreplaceable worker.

If you are an average worker, you will be replaced by someone else who can do the same job for cheaper, whether in your own country or in Asia or elsewhere where labor is inexpensive. So you must not be average, just getting your job done (even if doing it well); you must be exceptional.

And I think he’s right.

I’m a software developer and see already that developers in India and China and Eastern Europe are gaining in technical skill and in numbers. They work for much less than American developers do. Eventually the few advantages U.S. programmers still have will be nullified, and “average” developers will see their jobs get outsourced.

So in theory I should buy his book and learn how to become exceptional so that I keep my job.

But here’s the problem: by definition, everyone can’t become exceptional. Otherwise everyone is the exception which means no one is. By definition, most people are average, the big part of the bell curve. So his solution isn’t really one at all. Sure, it might help the people who are already exceptional become more so, or the few hanging out near the standard deviation’s edge to move a few fractions to the indispensable right of the curve. But for everyone else: pack up your desk; you are the weakest link; good-bye!

Godin is advising on how to avoid getting replaced–a problem we’ve created for ourselves by our modern industrial business model, where everyone’s a cog in the machine. “Be an indispensable cog,” is his message. “Then when natural selection comes and culls the unexceptional, you’re left untouched, flying above the clouds in bliss.”

But I say, why not opt out of the machine altogether?

One way is to become independently wealthy (like Godin is), by getting hundreds of thousands of people to buy your products and come to your talks and label you as a guru. Great. Most people can’t do that, anymore than they can become exceptional.

Instead, we need an economic system where even average people–who are the majority–can provide for their families. A Distributive economy, where the majority (and not just the few) own land and have capital to generate their own subsistence and wealth.

Imagine a country where the majority were, at least in part, yeoman farmers–agriculturalists with some small number of acres to provide a large part of their food–and where people could actually learn trades and (even with their moderate intellects and average abilities) make a living from them. Spinning wool, sewing clothes, butchering meat, milling grain, building houses, sawing lumber, wiring electrical connections, metal-working, etc. etc.

The average guy and gal can’t get outsourced from such an economy.

They don’t need to fear being replaced because they aren’t a cog in the global economic wheel, a mere object that can be discarded when a cheaper one comes along. They are instead an integral part of their local community, one that is economically stable and independent of a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan.

A truly human economic system must have room for the average human to make a decent living. One that requires everyone to be indispensable is inhuman.

And within the locally focused, distributive economy, there’s plenty of room for imagination, hard work, creativity, and so forth, not for the end goal of becoming rich (as is so often what modern workers are shooting for), but to simply make a living doing something that’s good for family, for the community, and good for God’s creation. We work insane hours for decades as cogs in the machine in order that we may finally “retire” one day and, if we still have any health left, buy an RV to cruise about the country, perpetually “getting away from it all.”

What if instead we were rooted to our home place and found the recreation and beauty on our own ten acres, watching the animal life around our pond, the wildflowers in spring, the grains turning golden and the sheep grazing in the pasture? What if we never wanted to retire from our work, because our work was stewarding the land and plying the trades we loved to do? What if it were so fulfilling that our children wanted to stay and continue such a life, instead of heading to the cities to join the rat race and futilely attempting to become that indispensable cog in the works?

Pie in the sky? Maybe. Certainly not everyone would even want to do it. So let them make the smart phones and RVs and computers for the cheapest price possible while we go back to the Land and live a whole life.

Apple says “think different.”
I say “live different.”

I’m not a guru. I’m trying to figure this stuff out. So weigh in and respond with your challenges, rebuttals, arguments, and thoughts.

What We Can Learn from Mennonites and the Amish

Katie and I received our first issue of Farming magazine in the mail this week, and what an enjoyable periodical it is! We had read some old issues lent to us by good friends of ours and decided to get a subscription.

The Duff family outside their home in Oakland MD. From left to right, Maria, 8, Levi, 6, Curtis, Daisy, Isaiah (infant), and Benjamin.

The magazine’s articles focus on old ways of doing things: growing food and preserving it, rearing your children with good values, building community with others, and so on. I think that the publishers of the magazine are Mennonites and/or Amish people, as these two religious groups are prominent throughout the articles.

I’m a Catholic apologist and can tell you all about how these groups are offshoots of the original Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation, a subset of the Anabaptists that went the pacifist route rather than the radical anarchist path of other Anabaptists (in substantial part due to the influence of Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest from whom the Mennonites got their name). They are separated brethren, Christians who descend from the grievous heretical schisms of the 16th century. As such, I could never become one of them unless they could demonstrate how their churches were what Christ established and intended.

Nonetheless, when it comes to creating a truly human and Christian community, they have us lay Catholics licked. By wisely being reluctant to adopt every new technological “advance” and bauble that comes along unless it helps strengthen their family and the ties within their community, they have preserved a way of life that most of us have never experienced. Family meals, family farming (sometimes even using tractors), helping your neighbor out, worshiping with your neighbors, rearing your children with good values and within your faith, etc.

To be sure, I think that in some respects they have been too reluctant to embrace certain new means of sharing their faith and life, and I will be honest that though I have seen many Mennonites in my day, none have ever engaged me to discuss their life or their faith. They give a good witness if one happens to live very close to one of their communities, but most people don’t. Nonetheless, I see most of what they are doing as very positive and worthy of emulation. I would just add a blog and a podcast and a regular engagement of the society outside of the tight-knit community. (There’s an interesting parallel here with regard to the strength of their communities that I see with Mormons as well, but that’s another blog post that’s brewing for later.)

We as Catholics could learn a lot from them. I think it would be cool to have such a community amongst Catholics (and others as well), working in an inter-dependent way, having some land and farming it (though even still working a regular job–even as a software engineer). We’ve seen some evidence of such communities here and there, but they seem to be pretty rare. The Mennonites and Amish are ahead of us in this respect by generations.

God bless ’em!