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.
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.
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.
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.
Farms 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.
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.
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.
The 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.