A few speculations about the encyclical

A few speculations about the encyclical June 16, 2015

“Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.”

(Pope Francis Benedict XVI, Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the Occasion of the Seventh Symposium of the Religion, Science and the Environment Movement, September 1, 2007)

I haven’t read the purloined draft of the encyclical nor seen any commentary on it, though I have seen boocoo commentary from hysterical righties telling the pope to shut up, prophesying that the pope has opened the Church to demonic powers, declaring that the pope “hates the Church”, and warning that listening to climate change experts will lead (and you just knew this was coming, cuz it’s cyberspace) to “Nazism.”

Layered on that, of course, is lots of hilarious gloating from Lefties (like that wonderful Pope Action Hero movie trailer the other day, which I could watch again and again).  The basic subtext from the left, of course, is “The pope is on our side”: a subtext the right completely agrees with and is therefore in full bore panic mode about, filled with the terror that the pope is going to declare climate change the 13th article of the Creed, call for the Church to get with the times and start sterilizing and aborting as fast as possible, move the Vatican to an Occupy Tent City on Wall Street, and inaugurate the Rite of Gaia in which communion is replaced with a ritual doobie administered by a priestess of the Earth Mother.

Here’s what I think is actually going to happen, more or less: The pope is going to reiterate the Church’s teaching.

And that will, yet again, amaze and appall both Left and Right.

Why do I think this?  Because I know both the Church’s teaching and the pope’s job and absolutely nothing he has said makes me think he knows it less than I do.  Indeed, I have long had the impression that the successor of Peter knows his task pretty well–and far better than the hysterical Reactionaries who keep denouncing him as a menace to the Church.

So I think he will reiterate classic Catholic teaching which sees nature, both non-human and human, as a gift from God which it is our task, under grace, to tend and cultivate, not rape and despoil according to our fallen appetites, darkened intellect, and lawless will.

When it comes to non-human nature, this will conflict strongly with the agenda of the right and the right, knowing this, is already shouting him down in ways remarkably similar to the left. When it’s pelvic stuff the left tells the pope to shut up because what does he know about sex?  When it’s money stuff, the right shouts him down because what does he know about money (and the environment is all about the benjamins).

Nonetheless, historic Catholic teaching on our relationship with nature is that it is a sacramental gift from God and our task is to cooperate with the will of the Creator in using and beautifying it.  It is not simply ours for the taking with no regard for its created integrity and no regard for how misusing it will affect the common good.  This is not something our captains of industry want to hear, so there has been the crude push to shut Francis up from the dutiful servants of lawless industrial rapine in American Movement Conservatism.  It will be in this context that Francis will do what the Church always does when it comes to matters beyond its competence, such as science, whether reproductive or environmental: get input from the people with the relevant competencies in such fields as gynecology, environmental studies or climate change.  This is why Santorum’s demand that Francis listen to the scientists was so supremely silly.  He is listening to the scientists, a massive consensus of whom warn that climate change is real.  Listening to the experts when you yourself are not an expert is what is known as “prudence”.  It’s not infallible, of course.  The condemnation of Galileo was another occasion on which the Church listened to Consensus Science.  But then, condemnations of Galileo are pretty rare in the Church’s history.  Most of the time (and arguably even in the Galileo case) it’s generally a smart idea to listen to the experts even when they don’t have all the answers.

That said, I don’t think the encyclical will simply (and perhaps even primarily) be about climate change, but about the Big Picture of the interrelatedness of our relationship with the earth and with each other as sacramental creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

For that reason, I think that, in addition to talking about how you cannot treat non-human nature lawlessly without it slapping you back, I will not be a bit surprised if Francis talks the same way about the consequences of shredding human nature with our lawless will as well.  So the fabric of “human ecology” will enter into the discussion too, I reckon.  This will be bad news not only for the right (since it will extend the discussion to the lawless rapine directed at the workforce and the community by increasingly lawless capitalism), but for the left, which likewise holds that human nature is infinitely malleable to our will and that things like “man”, “woman”, “family” “human life”, “child” and “marriage” can be infinitely redefined and destroyed without consequences and that 57 million people can be killed as easily and simply as a righty thinks a rain forest can be obliterated with zero consequences.

In short, the pope will reiterate something that almost nobody in American culture–or Western culture–wants to hear: that nature, both human and non-human, is first and foremost God’s gift to us and is meant to be cultivated and made fruitful by cooperating with his will, not by lawlessly and selfishly asserting our own.  Each political party will, as is their custom, cannibalize the encyclical for the bits it likes and then denounce the rest while using the parts they have cannibalized to hit their opponents over the heads.

Me: I suggest that the first thing to do with the encyclical is to *receive* it–whole, not reading with a view to dissecting, shredding, and taking only the bits we lie.  Take it as what it is: an expression of the Church’s whole and integrated teaching.  Work against your fears and prejudices and itching need to force it into your favorite political ideology.  Let it instead force the shriveled parts of your thinking to revivify in union with the mind of Christ while it trims back the overgrown parts of your thinking to let in daylight.  Think it possible you may be wrong. Resist Pavlovian kneejerk responses to words and phrases you associate with the hated Them. Think it possible that Christ still has something new to say to us who pretty much know everything.

One of the curious features of the gospel is that it is continuously confronting us with things we already know, yet which are somehow brand new.  This is the paradox John sketches when he says, “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” (1 Jn 2:7–8).   The encyclical will be like that, as all encyclicals are.  It’s not going to promulgate the Dogma of Climate Change.  But it is going to take climate change seriously and read the signs of the times (including the state of the environment according to our best science and the state of the human community according to our best analyses) and root a prudent response to that in the Church’s teaching.  That’s pretty much the job of the Magisterium.  We should try responding *after* we have listened, and our first response should not be a reckless search for reasons to shout “No!” but “Come let us reason together”.

Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (Lumen Gentium, no. 25)


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