News Analysis

The theology of the Green New Deal

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Getty)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was roundly panned by conservatives after launching her “Green New Deal” (GND) last week. From her first moment on the national stage, the New York congressional freshman’s hardline progressive ideology and ur-millennial swagger made her a lightning rod for conservative antipathy. But the GND’s references to replacing air travel with light-rail trains, curtailing cow flatulence, and providing a stipend for those “unwilling to work” elicited mockery and condemnation from the Right.

According to Ocasio-Cortez’s adviser, Cornell law professor Robert Hockett, the documents referring to these three policies were “doctored” and didn’t originate from the congresswoman’s office. Still, that’s unlikely to endear Republicans to her plan. Environmentalism is one of those issues where the two major parties are starkly divided.

Not so with the Catholic Church. While environmental issues are a relatively new concern for Catholic social teaching, they span the Church’s own left-right factional divide. “The world is not something indifferent, raw material to be used simply as we see fit,” Benedict XVI wrote in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. “The justified concern about threats to the environment present in so many parts of the world is reinforced by Christian hope, which commits us to working responsibly for the protection of creation.” Pope Francis has also spoken frequently about the need to care for Creation, most notably in his exhaustive 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’.

Yet the loudest advocates for environmentalism in the Church do often come from the Left. Dr Alex Mikulich, an “anti-racist Roman Catholic social ethicist” who edited a book called Interrupting White Privilege, quoted Laudato Si’ in an op-ed defending the GND. Writing in the ultra-progressive National Catholic Reporter, Mikulich called the GND a “great work of love and justice” which will foster the “new and universal solidarity” Pope Francis called for in his encyclical.

Yet some more conservative Catholics support environmentally friendly policies, too. Among them is Joseph Capizzi, a professor of moral theology and ethics at the Catholic University of America. Speaking to the Catholic News Agency about the GND, he said that “the Christian approach to the environment would require us to think about … whether our policies give God his due in their impact on his creation … We have justice-based responsibilities to our children to care for the creation God intends for them as well as for us.”

The language is similar, but there are subtle and important differences. Mikulich speaks mostly in terms of social justice as we use the phrase today, which refers to our duties to our’s fellow man. Capizzi’s focus is more on piety in the classical sense: our duties to God and our kin.

Related to this is another distinction: that between climate policy and conservationism. Those sceptical of anthropogenic global warming may focus instead on protecting natural resources, massive deforestation, the pollution of air and water, and so on. The Catholic philosopher Russell Kirk once quipped, “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.” Sir Roger Scruton has made the case for a “pious” (albeit secular) conservative environmentalism, as “it touches on the three foundational ideas of [conservatism]: trans-generational loyalty, the priority of the local and the search for home.”

Both emphases are found in the Church’s social doctrines: one appeals more to progressives, the other to conservatives. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the GND deserves Catholics’ support.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) may endorse all or part of the legislation. It wouldn’t be the first time the bishops have made specific recommendations on “green” policy. For instance, the USCCB condemned President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the UN’s Paris Agreement. Yet, while Catholics are obliged to take the bishops’ concerns seriously, their opinion will not constitute an authoritative teaching. Even if they act in concert, and even if the Holy Father agrees with them, environmental policy is a matter of prudential judgment – that is, individual Catholics must use reason to realistically apply the principles of Catholic social teaching to a political scenario.

Take, for example, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic with environmentalist sympathies. He is unpersuaded by the GND, not because he denies the need for a greener economy, but because he fears it’s too extreme – that it will “empower climate-change sceptics, weaken the hand of would-be compromisers in the GOP and put the kind of climate-change package that could win at least 51 votes in the Senate even further out of reach”.

Nearly all the major contenders for the Democrats’ presidential nomination have supported the GND (four co-sponsored it in the senate), so it’s not likely to fade from view. The USCCB hadn’t issued a statement as we went to press, although we can expect one soon. But Catholic voters will ultimately have to decide for themselves whether the Green New Deal offers prudent stewardship of the created order, or whether its more radical tenets would actually harm the environmentalist movement in the US.