The Pope’s Laudato: So Close And Yet So Far

The Pope’s Laudato: So Close And Yet So Far July 1, 2015


Pope Francis has issued an encyclical, Laudato Si, which warns about the grave danger of climate change and calls on Catholics to take urgent action to combat it. Lest I be accused of ignoring something actually good that religion has done, here are my thoughts.

I’m glad for this statement, I really am, and I want to say that without hesitation. Climate change is the greatest threat looming over human civilization, and it’s heartening to see anyone with influence speak out about it. I’ve always said that atheists and theists ought to be able to work together on important moral issues, and it doesn’t get more important than this. To the extent this can mobilize Catholics to fight climate change, it’s a positive good for all humanity.

Besides, I confess to schadenfreude at the way Laudato has dismayed the anti-science faction of conservative Catholics. Rick Santorum hilariously argued that the Pope should “leave science to the scientists” (fine by me, Rick, but that doesn’t really help you here), while Jeb Bush, author of the Terri Schiavo fiasco, has apparently now decided that religion shouldn’t be “about things that end up getting in the political realm“. Meanwhile, anti-evolutionist Michael Egnor (notice a theme here?) huffed and grumbled about the “ideology of scientific apocalyptics”, presumably as opposed to the good, religious kind of apocalyptics.

That said, I don’t want to be too complimentary. A religious leader accepting scientific findings should be a bare-minimum standard of seriousness, not a great deed that deserves extraordinary praise. If Laudato stands out, it’s only because religious institutions of every stripe have a long history of rejection and denialism. The Catholic church is arguably less anti-science than some other Christian denominations, but that alone doesn’t make it a friend to reason.

And though Laudato has undeniable symbolic importance, it’s less clear how much impact it will really have (despite some people prematurely declaring it “a genuine game-changer“). After all, the Vatican doesn’t have an economy; they don’t have carbon emissions of their own to reduce. The most they can do is try to persuade, and their power to do that is questionable at best, since the church has a long history of issuing decrees that the vast majority of Catholics ignore. If this decree fails to motivate people to act, it will be irrelevant regardless of what good intentions lie behind it.

Last and most important, despite all its lofty intentions, Laudato has one fatal flaw that stands to undermine all the other good this statement can do. That is, of course, the Vatican’s dogmatic resistance to contraception, a resistance that’s reiterated in the text itself:

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… To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.

As I’ve said before, overpopulation isn’t the sole problem the environment faces, but it makes every other environmental problem worse. A growing population increases the pressure on already-strained resources like fresh water and arable land; worsens deforestation and habitat destruction; and compels the use of more fossil fuel for agriculture and electricity. This is especially true as the world industrializes and billions of people aspire to catch up to a Western standard of living. The more people there are, the harder that will be to achieve without causing catastrophic environmental degradation.

What’s more, a larger population will make the impacts of climate change harder to mitigate. Low-lying, heavily populated countries like Bangladesh will see more and worse storms and floods. Settlements on the coast will be lost to the slow, inexorable rise of the sea. Subsistence farmers will suffer from shifting rain patterns and desertification. There will be famines, resource wars and mass migrations in the decades to come. The more people there are in harm’s way, the worse these problems will be, and the harder it will be for civilization to adapt – especially since the fastest population growth is happening in parts of the world that are at the most risk. (Both Annie Laurie Gaylor of FFRF and the Center for Inquiry make this same point.)

In a final irony, if the Pope wants to enlighten people to the dangers of climate change, warning people away from contraception actively works against his own goal. Understanding the nature of the problem takes education and at least a basic grasp of science, which poverty lifts higher out of reach. Meanwhile, people who live on the edge of subsistence have very little room to maneuver if their way of life changes. The evidence shows that when women gain control of their fertility, countries reap a “demographic dividend” in the form of a smaller number of better-educated, more prosperous citizens, who will both be more likely to recognize the threat of climate change and more capable of adapting to it.

The best intentions in the world matter hardly at all if you’re promoting harmful dogmas that hamper and undermine them, and Laudato is the number one example. The goal it’s aimed at is a worthy one, but as long as the church calls for action on climate while opposing birth control, they’re like someone trying to swim against the tide with lead weights tied to their ankles.

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