By the time the environment encyclical of Pope Francis is released, it will be anti-climactic. Not anti-climate change to be sure, as the Holy See is certainly enthusiastic about the issue. Actually, it is against climate change, but enthusiastic about entering the debate firmly on the side of those who believe that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity, that the consequences are catastrophic, and that only massive state action, co-ordinated internationally, is sufficient to stop it.
At least that is how the Holy See, led by the Holy Father himself, has advertised the enviro-encyclical, soon to be released. Its purpose, stated by Pope Francis himself, is to encourage this year’s UN climate change conference in Paris to achieve an international and legally binding agreement to take action on climate change. He has climate change enthusiasts the world over almost giddy with anticipation.
Notably not giddy, but rather fearful, is our own William Oddie, who wrote in these pages that the Holy Father might be about to make a big mistake in hitching the Church’s wagon to the various horsemen of the climate apocalypse.
“The history of science is a history of one collapsing consensus after another,” wrote Dr Oddie. “An encyclical is a document to which the Church will be committed for years to come. To base one on the passing vagaries of secular opinion is surely something the Church should be very hesitant to embark on. For it is possible that the idea of anthropogenic global warming is on the verge of a collapse as total as that of eugenics in the last century. The latter was a virtually universal ‘scientific consensus’ which the Church not only steered clear of but also contemptuously rejected.”
I disagree. Not about the Holy Father’s ideas about climate change, because I don’t know yet what exactly he will say. I disagree with Dr Oddie’s claim that encyclicals commit the Church to a particular line for years to come. They do when they deal with strict points of theological doctrine, but not so in social doctrine. The social teaching of the Church has immense richness, and the world would be better off if it paid more heed to it. Yet because her social teaching is an application of theological principles to the changing circumstances of the social order, the particular judgments of Catholic social teaching are highly contingent on accurate social, economic, and even scientific analysis. If that analysis is not accurate, the Church simply moves on as circumstances change. Encyclicals can be forgotten like last year’s weather.
For example, in 1967 Blessed Paul VI published his encyclical on the urgent issue of global economic development, Populorum Progressio. There was a widespread consensus that alleviation of abject poverty in the poorest countries mandated massive transfers of wealth from the rich nations, and that economic development had to be co-ordinated, managed and planned. This task would fall to the state, and to agreements between states.
“It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired goals, the plans to be followed, and the methods to be used in fulfilling them; and it is also their task to stimulate the efforts of those involved in this common activity,” Paul VI wrote, accepting this consensus. “But they must also see to it that private initiative and intermediary organisations are involved in this work. In this way they will avoid total collectivisation and the dangers of a planned economy which might threaten human liberty and obstruct the exercise of man’s basic human rights.”
Paul VI endorsed economic planning as necessary, but warned the faithful against the (inherent?) dangers of economic planning. Whether that balance was ever possible, it turned out that the most rapidly developing countries in the subsequent decades were those most open to trade and least given to economic planning.
The Church took note and largely left the economic prescriptions of Populorum, and the widespread 1967 consensus they represented, behind.
Indeed, when he commemorated the 20th anniversary of Populorum Progressio in 1987 with his own encyclical on development, St John Paul II instead advanced the concept of economic liberty – the “right to economic initiative” – as the key to development.
On another matter though, John Paul reflected a widespread consensus of his day, writing about the Cold War division of the world. “In today’s world, including the world of economics, the prevailing picture is one destined to lead us more quickly towards death rather than one of concern for true development which would lead all towards a more human life, as envisaged by the encyclical Populorum Progressio,” John Paul wrote in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Within two years the Cold War was over, Communism defeated and all the talk in Sollicitudo about opposing blocs leading the world towards death was left behind.
Social encyclicals present the best thinking of the popes at the time. If that thinking turns out to be wrong on matters beyond the magisterium’s theological competence, the Church will not remain committed to mistaken ideas. Not only the climate can change.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (15/5/15).
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