Do we really need a papal encyclical on climate change?

Cardinal Oullet holding the Pope's last encyclical (PA)

The Observer recently ran a report that the Pope is contemplating an encyclical on the environment, or, more specifically, on climate change, and that this will be published in March. You can read the report here.

It is interesting to see that talk of a Papal encyclical can still be front page news in a secular newspaper. But what is really interesting is the final comment which comes from an American evangelical, Calvin Beisner, for whose plain speaking we should be grateful:

“The Pope should back off. The Catholic church is correct on the ethical principles but has been misled on the science. It follows that the policies the Vatican is promoting are incorrect. Our position reflects the views of millions of evangelical Christians in the US.”

Mr Beisner has got a good point. Let me try and explain.

If we go back to the last Papal encyclical that made the front pages, Humanae Vitae, and which stirred up a storm inside the Catholic Church as well, the only (and I really do mean the only) cogent criticism of the letter’s teaching was made by Fr Charles Curran and others, who said that the letter’s understanding of Natural Law was flawed, or more exactly, the model of Natural Law that Pope Paul was using was out of date and did not reflect current Catholic thinking. Ergo, from this it followed that, according to Curran and others, the encyclical was wrong to insist that every act of sexual intercourse should be open to the transmission of human life. The problem, as they saw it, was not in the teaching itself, but in the teaching’s faulty presuppositions.

Now, I do not agree with Fr Charles Curran on Humanae Vitae, but his logic commands respect, and if we consider an encyclical on the environment, and remember what Mr Beisner has to say, the risks it any such encyclical runs should be apparent.

The ethical principles are not in doubt. It is wrong, for example, to destroy nature without a proportionate reason. Everyone knows that. What constitutes proportionate reason is something that ethicists and scientists need to work out between them. If, for example one is to build a dam, that is certainly an interference in nature and a destruction of a natural environment – but is it worth it? Will the dam bring some proportionate benefit? That in itself is hard to determine. When I was schoolboy we did projects on the Aswan High Dam, which was seen as a towering human achievement back in the seventies. But would it ever have got built today? Our understanding of the usefulness or otherwise of dams has changed, and will continue to do so over time. Look at the Three Gorges Dam in China, a project that has been damned by virtually everyone. I suspect that forty years ago the consensus would have been very different.

The simple fact of the matter is that our understanding of anything in this world is historical. When I was a child we were all heading towards a new Ice Age; now I am grown up, we are all heading in the opposite direction. Our ethical principles, in so far as they are abstract, do not change with time, but the clear danger is that our moral pronouncements on something like climate change will look foolish or out of date with the passage of a few decades. So it has proved in the case of usury: past condemnations relied on a false model for understanding money. It was the same in the case of slavery: past condoning of slavery relied on a very faulty model of human rights. In the case of climate change: do we really understand what we are dealing with here? Remember the biofuels idea? Biofuels were meant to be part of the solution. Now they are seen as just another bad idea.

Given the difficulty with the subject, one might think that I am advocating silence on the issue. Sometimes, no doubt, silence is best, but for the Church to fall silent on social issues completely would be nothing short of catastrophic, quite apart from being a shirking of moral responsibility. The environment is a “problem” and it must be confronted. We cannot put it in a box marked “too difficult”. But what exactly can we say, and what ought we to say? Here are some suggestions.

First of all, in keeping with tradition, the Church needs to remind everyone of the folly and sinfulness of conspicuous over-consumption. Our environmental problems are aggravated by over-eating, over-heating, over-air-conditioning, and driving gas-guzzling vehicles, as well as throwing away tons of usable stuff which we do not want, both clothes and food and children’s toys. None of this in keeping with traditional Christian humility and frugality. People need to stop showing off, particularly in a world where so many get by (if at all) on so little.

Secondly, the Pope (or any other bishop of the Church) would surely be on solid ground if he were to condemn the relentless pursuit of ugliness in the modern world, and promote a proper Christian and human aesthetic. Much modern development is hideous beyond belief, and a scar on the face of the planet. This sort of environmental impact is to be deplored, whereas the impact made by some of the great human constructions, of the past, but also some contemporary ones, is quite the opposite. We must enhance the world, not ruin it.

Thirdly, the Pope should certainly praise the work of conservation, which has saved many natural beauties for future generations, as well as many of the beauties of the built environment. One ought to praise the work of conservation, something that the Church itself has long been committed to through its museums, libraries and archeological projects, while not adhering to the motivation or beliefs of many conservators, which are quite a different matter. Conservation is a God-given duty, as the book of Genesis implies (see Genesis 2:15). The Pope might also add that there is more to conservation than talk. It requires deeds as well as words, and will involve real sacrifices.

But most of this has been said before now in numerous Church documents, and most of this is pure common sense. As Mr Beisner’s comments imply, there is no real controversy about the ethics. So, do we really need an encyclical on this matter? One that took up a strong position on the causes of climate change might prove to be prophetic, but it might also be a hostage to fortune.