Should the Pope comment on environmental politics?

I recently had dinner with a friend who was quite upset with the recent encyclical letter issued by Pope Francis.  I had to admit that I had not yet read it, but had only seen headlines.  Nonetheless, we wandered into a discussion of the general topic of whether the Pope ought to be commenting on public policy matters.  My friend offered complaints about some of the Pope’s comments, while I tended to defend the Pope on the grounds that his engagement with contemporary issues can contribute positively to the growing image problem that not only Catholicism, but Christianity in general, has been struggling with recently, especially among the young in the Western world.

The full text (English version) of the recent letter, Laudato Si’, can be found here on the Vatican website.  I’ve finally had a chance to read it, and I can certainly appreciate my friend’s concerns. Large sections of it sound like a UN resolution or a political stump speech, full of “on the one hand, on the other hand” platitudes that are designed to give a cursory nod toward almost every possible environmental concern.  It also contains a number of shout-outs to various national conferences of Catholic bishops, often quoting their similarly bland resolutions verbatim.  It doesn’t have the tone of a spiritual classic.

If we look past the stylistic issues, there do seem to be a number of themes that emerge.  At the societal level, there is a thorough distrust of markets and support for strengthening political institutions to implement more restrictions on environmentally harmful behavior.  At the theological level, there is a portrayal of God’s creation as something having independent value, with man having “stewardship” rather than “dominion” over it.  At the individual level, there is a call to go beyond superficial eco-friendly behavior, and really simplify one’s lifestyle.

Each of these claims could easily warrant one or more posts to discuss further.  I’ll just state briefly here that I tend to disagree with the Pope on two out of three of these main themes.  I think markets should be the dominant force in the economy, and while there exist market failures that can in principle be corrected by good policy, the kinds of government intervention that take place often do more harm than good.  While I am less clear on our proper relationship to the higher animals, my attitude towards insects, plants, and landscapes is generally one of dominion; I don’t see anything especially holy about the particular configuration of species, the climate, or the landscape we have on our planet at this particular point in time.  Except where there are human interests at stake, I don’t feel compelled to preserve the status quo of the biosphere for its own sake.  The one area I did find myself nodding in agreement was the individual aspects of living simply, such as:

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.

and also (more challenging to me) the need to overcome the anxiety of a busy life:

We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers.

The Pope probably sees all three themes as part of an integrated whole, but given the distance between each of our individual attitudes and a truly Christian perspective, people need market institutions to channel human selfishness into productivity, and should not build political institutions on the assumption that people’s hearts are all in the right place. Furthermore, given the large scale of human problems, and the fact that nature generally behaves very differently from

There is a lot more to say on these topics, but for today I’d like to focus on the question of whether the Pope should be commenting on political topics.  The answer to this isn’t clear to me.  If we look at Jesus’s own ministry as a role model, we find a general lack of concern with politics – “My kingdom is not of this world“, “render unto Caesar” – lots to say about the relationships of individuals to one another and to God (some of which could inform one’s politics, indirectly), but nothing specifically about public policy.  If we were talking about a Protestant leader, I would generally say no, environmental politics is not a topic on which one should take a stand from the pulpit.  In my local church, the pastor makes a point of avoiding telling people how to vote, and does a good job with this, so much so that one really can’t be sure how he votes himself.  I think this helps create a welcoming environment for people of all persuasions, and avoids whatever conflicts and frictions might come from politicizing the church.

However, when we talk about the Pope, things are a bit different.  First, in terms of the Catholic Church restricting itself to an apolitical approach, that ship has sailed long ago.  Popes have been part of the global political landscape for many centuries, sometimes for better but often for worse. Second, the Pope is the leader of a very large international community and his words and actions have the potential to unify in spirit people who are otherwise separated by national boundaries, and that by itself is a good thing.  Third, since many Protestant leaders (especially in the U.S.) have not shown much restraint in mixing church and politics, and have given some people the impression that Christianity is inextricably tied in with conservative political views, it can be refreshing to see opposite perspectives given airtime from a Christian speaker. Even where I disagree with the Pope, I find myself smiling at the possibility that someone out there who may have been alienated from Christ by thinking Him incompatible with their political views would find the Pope’s stance an opportunity to reconsider.

No longer a Catholic myself, I don’t have a doctrinal commitment to the Pope’s infallibility; indeed that is one of the reasons I chose to leave Catholicism.  I do sympathize with the plight of Catholics who struggle with such an idea, especially when a Pope comments on a wide range of controversial topics.  In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis does seem to cross a view lines that I would have preferred he did not.  However, although he sometimes comes across as naive or unrealistic, but he never sounds heartless, and in any competition of virtues among, say, intellect, practicality, and love, I would have to say “the greatest of these is love“.

In the grand scheme of things, I have a lot more concern for the spread of the expansion of the community of faith than for what particular policy views win the day.  And I do see Pope Francis as being good for the cause of the Gospel, not just in his pronouncements but also in his outreach to those often looked down upon by the self-righteous, a page right out of Jesus’s own playbook.  So I’ll continue to look favorably upon him and wish him a long reign and much success in his ministry.

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