Prudence and Climate Change

Prudence and Climate Change April 24, 2019

Here’s a piece I just published with St. Anthony Messenger:

Recently, Al Gore remarked, “I’m a Protestant, but I’ll tell you, because of Pope Francis, I really could become a Catholic.”

His reason was not far to seek: “Now I was taught in my church that the purpose of life is to glorify God and if we are heaping contempt on God’s creation, then we’re not living up to the duty that God is calling us to. And so this — the way we live our lives is definitely connected to this. It is — it’s not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual issue.”

In short, Gore’s “doorway” into his attraction to the Church’s witness was Pope Francis’ reiteration (and expansion in Laudato Si) of the Church’s teaching on our connection to–and duty to protect–God’s creation.  Time was when Catholics were happy when a sinner expressed his interest in drawing close to Christ in the bosom of Holy Church.

But instead, because it was Gore and because it involved climate change, the pushback was immediate.  In the sarcastic words of one of my readers, “His attraction to the Catholic Dogma of Climate Change is touching.”

These two sets of statements–Gore’s and my reader’s–rather nicely illustrate the peculiar nature of the argument about climate change that is taking place in our culture and spilling over into the Church. For some, Pope Francis’ urging that the faithful take climate change seriously and act accordingly is a great sign of hope that the Church is taking leadership in a global crisis that literally threatens the world.

For others, it has become the thirteenth article of the Creed that taking climate change seriously is some kind of sin of “capitulating to political correctness” and even a diversion away from “the real work of the Church, which is saving souls, not saving the earth”.

How should Catholics respond to all this?

To begin with, it is important to address something implicit in the criticism my reader offered: the notion that, since climate change is not a matter of Catholic dogma, it (and the Church’s teaching regarding it) is therefore something we can feel free to dismiss.

The notion that our relationship with the Magisterial teaching of the Church is divided between “dogmas we must believe” and “everything else, which we can blow off if we feel like it” is an incredibly common–and incredibly impoverished–view of our intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation as Catholics.  Again and again, one hears bandied about the notion that X is a “prudential judgment” and therefore you can feel free to disagree with, and even actively oppose, the Magisterium regarding X.  And since the bulk of the Church’s moral, social, and political guidance is, in fact, prudential and not dogmatic, this means that Catholics can (it is supposed) largely live our lives as though the Church’s guidance does not exist or is, at best, a timid uncle hesitantly offering occasional advice–and that we can make war on that guidance with a clear conscience.

Under this rule of thumb, the bulk of the Church’s moral teaching becomes a kind of antique shop where we shop for ideas that accessorize our political, social, and cultural preferences.  Our real core outlook comes, not from the gospel, therefore, but from favorite TV personalities, pundits, movie star, musicians, writers, and thinkers.  And whenever the Church says things we dislike–be it about unjust war, torture, gun violence, a living wage, the death penalty, birth control, transgenderism, climate change or anything else–we can simply ignore it or dedicate large reserves of our time and energy to fighting the Church.

And to rationalize all this, we appeal to “prudential judgment”, which we re-define to mean “those aspects of Church teaching we decide whether or not to obey.”

But that’s not what “prudential judgment” means.  Rather, it means “judging how best, not whether, to obey the Church’s guidance.”

The best way to get our bearings with this (for many) novel idea is to back up and ask what Prudence is.

Prudence has acquired something of a bad name these days. It is easily associated with words like “prune” or “prude”. People think it is a synonym for “timidity”.

But for St. Thomas Aquinas, Prudence means something more like common sense, proportion, or good judgment. The prudent person is the one who is able to realistically assess what is actually going on and do what needs to be done. So, for instance, a general who sees a weakness in the lines of an overwhelmingly superior enemy force and audaciously attacks is prudent while the timid servant hiding his talent in the ground out of fear of failure is extremely imprudent.

Prudence is the basis of all the other natural virtues: Justice, Temperance, Fortitude–as well as the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  Without it, you might as well try to build a house with no foundation on a pile of sand.

Prudence requires three things: Memory, Teachableness, and Agility.

Santayana summed up the necessity of Memory by noting that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Memory is the capacity to look at our experience and see it for what it was, not for what we wish it had been. It is to look squarely, not only at “the good times”, but at our errors and sins, and to, as the kids say, get a clue. (“Every time Lucy says she won’t snatch the football away when I try to kick it, she does anyway.  I think I won’t try to kick the football anymore.”)  One of the reasons for the success of the Jewish people is that their sacred literature, the Old Testament, is marked, uniquely in antiquity, by a ruthless quality of self-examination of their own faults and failing.  Instead of grand monuments boasting of their awesomeness, their prophets hold up an unsparing mirror to their faults and remind them of their embarrassing history and how it led to disaster.  That’s what Memory does for the Prudent and it’s why the Jewish wisdom literature made them wise.

Teachableness is the humility to recognize that some people are smarter than we, have a wider experience of the world than we, and that this can benefit us if we will listen to them (hence Jesus’ counsel to become like little children). Teachableness delights in having betters from whom we can learn and to whom we are in debt. (“I think it stands to reason that thousands of doctors who spent years and years studying vaccines and epidemiology know more about medicine than I do after googling around for a couple of hours on the web.  I will listen to what they say about vaccinating my kids instead of assuming that wisdom will die with me.”)

Agility is the capacity to act wisely and decisively in a given situation. If we learn from experience and receive teaching from those who know more, but cannot act in response, we are crippled. Without Agility, we are Cassandra, able to foresee but powerless to change what is coming. Agility characterizes those who can quickly size up a situation accurately and formulate a nimble, intelligent response (“Hm, I was ready for a night at the theatre with my wife, but she appears to have gone into labor.  Time to scrap the theatre plans and head for the hospital, no matter how expensive the tickets were.”)  Agility is at the heart of the Catholic conciliar tradition, wherein the Church periodically makes course adjustments in order to read the signs of the times and then adapt its strategies for doing life and addressing the culture accordingly.

In addition to these three qualities of Prudence there is a final thing worth mentioning. The Catholic belief in Prudence is based on a sort of cautious optimism.  The Faith believes, at bottom, that God is with us, not against us, and that we do not live in a Lovecraftian universe of horror that is out to get us.  So it assumes the sunny fact that reality is 1) objective (not merely a clever dance of deconstructable words and opinions); 2) knowable (not “my personal truth of the moment”); and 3) good (not a mere mask on the face of power).

That is because the Faith takes seriously the truth that this good world is the creation of a good God who wills our good. Therefore, a Catholic view of Prudence always leaves room for Providence and for the idea that God works all things together for the good of those who trust him. In short, at the heart of Prudence is a hope that is a million miles away from the contemporary emphasis on atomized individualism that teaches “trust no one”. Prudence takes seriously the hope both that God aims to make things turn out all right, that we can be intelligent participants in His work, and that human authorities and expertise really can have things to teach us.

In short, while there is a common sense command to be “wise as serpents” in Christian Prudence, so that we are not to be gullible suckers, there is also a healthy dose of trust in the fundamental goodness of God’s purposes that urges us to be “innocent as doves” as well.  Christian Prudence tells us to exercise common sense and not just buy every get-rich-quick promise or unverified tall tale that comes down the pike.  But neither are we to live in the paranoid fear that everything is a vast conspiracy theory in which bogeymen such as the Illuminati, Masons, Communists, the Vast Right/Left Wing conspiracy and so forth lie behind everything.  We are to exercise common sense in broad daylight, not waste our time eternally trying to “read between the lines” and smoke out the Hidden History of Our Time like heroes in a Dan Brown novel.

Which brings us back to the Church’s attitude to climate change.  What does the Pope know about climate change that we should bother with his non-expert opinion?

Well, although he is certainly not a climate scientist, neither are you or me.  However, he is, in fact, surrounded by a ton of advisors who actually are climate science experts.  That’s how encyclicals like Laudato Si get written.  The Pope doesn’t just crack open the laptop one day like a blogger and start talking about “How the Environment Makes Me Feel”.  He calls in the heavy hitters and experts concerning whatever field he wants to discuss.  In short, he is Teachable.  If he wants to write about economics, he gets input from the best economists.  If he wants to write about climate change, he talks to climate scientists–97% of whom agree that anthropogenic climate change is real and is already having a damaging impact, not merely on a rare species of orchid, but on millions of people, and especially on the poorest and most defenseless.

Now some will object that none of this is infallible.  True.

In reply, I note that most of us, being told by our completely non-infallible doctor that we have diabetes might, at most, get a second opinion.  However, most of us don’t get 97 second opinions and then conclude that we should bet the farm on the three guys in the storefront shop sponsored by a giant sugar corporation who tell you that diabetes does not exist.  Why?  Because we have Memory and remember that, virtually always, a 97% percent consensus among experts is likely to be right.

Which bring us to the third point of Prudence: Agility.  The Pope is calling us to act.  Acting means not, “Do whatever you feel like, including living in denial and fighting the Church in defiance of common sense” but “Listen to the Church’s guidance and do what you can to best implement her call to responsibility.  Learn how to practically live responsibly.  Try to educate yourself.  Make the connection between treating creation with respect and treating your neighbor–especially your poor neighbor–with respect.”

Most of this is not even hard.  It just requires moving beyond our comfort zones.  And none of it is unorthodox, a threat to the Faith, or somehow a capitulation to some kind of conspiracy.  It’s just… prudent, which Catholics have always been called to be.

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