Santorum is the one with the “phony theology”

Santorum is the one with the “phony theology” February 21, 2012

A lot of people are piling on Rick Santorum for his inopportune comments about Obama’s supposed “phony theology”. But most of these critics are missing something fundamental. They assume, albeit implicitly, that Santorum is speaking from the perspective of orthodox Catholic theology, and then denounce him for seeking to impose his theological views on a secular state. But this misses the point entirely. Santorum’s theology is most certainly not an orthodox Catholic position. His worldview owes far more to American evangelicalism and exceptionalism than historic Christianity. It is no accident that Santorum’s core support comes from right-wing evangelicals.

For me, the kicker was when Santorum stated that Obama’s theology was “not based on the bible”. This, right here, is the defining Protestant sola scriptura position, where the bible is the sole source of Christians belief. Catholics don’t talk that way, and they certainly don’t think that way. Catholics believe that revelation comes from scripture and tradition. Specifically, the Church teaches that the union of sacred tradition and sacred scripture  together form a “single sacred deposit of the word of God” (Dei Verbum). The deposit of faith contains the memory of Jesus, and everything that goes with it, and preserving this memory is entrusted to the Church.

This system of belief is the backbone of the Catholic faith and the key source of disagreement during the Protestant reformation. Protestants and Muslims both see themselves as “people of the book”. Not so for Catholics. We do not treat the library of writings, which are compiled as the Bible, in this way. We insist that in a primary sense, Jesus the person is God’s Word. The collection of writings labeled the Bible is the Word of God only in a secondary sense, insofar as when rightly interpreted it enables us to get to know Jesus. The true Word of God has a human face.

Rick Santorum, therefore, is talking and thinking more like an American Protestant than a global Catholic. It is no accident that Santorum was talking about environmental theology – there is no clearer example of how his thinking diverges from the Church’s thinking. Worst things first – Santorum slams the overwhelming scientific consensus on man-made global warming. He calls it a fake, and claims that God gave the planet to mankind “for our benefit not for the Earth’s benefit”.

I believe Santorum is influenced here by a number of Protestant-inspired “phony theologies”:

  • First, Gnosticism – the metaphysical dualism that sees the world and all of creation as evil, from which the soul seeks liberation. If creation is not fundamentally good and in need of renewal, then why should be it not exploited through violence and environmental degradation? Christians, on the other hand, believe in the essential goodness of all creation.
  • Second, a Calvinist-inspired American exceptionalism – the belief that the United States of America is especially chosen by God, and whose residents are granted a divine mandate to use its resources as they see fit.
  • Third, voluntaristic anti-intellectualism, in mocking and dismissing an overwhelming scientific consensus. Catholics have always believed in a certain intelligibility to creation, meaning that faith and reason cannot be separated. Santorum is ripping them apart.

Ironically, while Santorum parades himself as the shining knight of “conservatism”, his position on the environment tells us something different. True conservatism is about prudence and temperance, about the cultivation of virtues in all aspects of life. But Santorum, like so many American liberals of the right, takes this approach when it comes to human sexuality, but tosses it out the window when it comes to economic and social activity. On the environment, like so many on the American right, Santorum adopts an almost Saruman-esque approach of plunder for immediate gratification, far removed from real conservative notions of stewardship.

It is also far removed from the thinking of Pope Benedict XVI, who addresses head-on the “threats arising from the neglect – if not downright misuse – of the earth and the natural goods that God has given us”.

Pope Benedict uses the bible – Santorum’s principal point of reference – to make his point. Biblical revelation tells us that the earth is a gift of the Creator. The response to such a gift is to care for and cultivate creation, to become God’s co-worker. The sin at the origin of the human race broke the harmony between the Creator, mankind and the created world. As Benedict puts it: “Human beings let themselves be mastered by selfishness; they misunderstood the meaning of God’s command and exploited creation out of a desire to exercise absolute domination over it. But the true meaning of God’s original command, as the Book of Genesis clearly shows, was not a simple conferral of authority, but rather a summons to responsibility”. Santorum’s theology seems to embrace this phony notion of absolute dominion.

Santorum also seems to eschew all notions of solidarity. On the other hand, Pope Benedict reiterates the well-established Church teaching that “God has destined the earth and everything it contains for all peoples and nations”, that the goods of creation belong to humanity as a whole. And here, he is quite blunt: “Large numbers of people in different countries and areas of our planet are experiencing increased hardship because of the negligence or refusal of many others to exercise responsible stewardship over the environment..the current pace of environmental exploitation is seriously endangering the supply of certain natural resources not only for the present generation, but above all for generations yet to come”.

Here, the pope is on solid ground. Despite Santorum’s convenient denialism, global warming is not just a theory or an imagined future. It is real, and it is hitting the poorest countries hardest. Africa is already suffering from desertification, water shortages, drought, low crop yields, flooding in fastly-urbanizing cities, water stress in river basins, increased disease, a decline in fisheries, and increasing population displacement. Low-lying regions are prone to extreme flooding, and the existence of some low-lying islands is even in question.

In addressing remedies, the pope explicitly condemns the “pursuit of myopic economic interests”. Noting that “the ecological crisis shows the urgency of a solidarity which embraces time and space”,  he calls for richer countries to embrace “more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency”. What’s more, we need to think not only about our individual choices, but also about our economic system as a whole: “Prudence would thus dictate a profound, long-term review of our model of development, one which would take into consideration the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications”. 

It should be clear from this perspective that Santorum’s environmental theology is the real phony theology. The Catholic position on the environment runs straight into Santorum’s American exceptionalism and narrow nationalism. It runs straight into his materialism and consumerism, hallmarks of liberalism, right or left. As for Santorum’s invective against global warming, he again rebukes the pope, who has called for urgent action to reach an international agreement to halt global warming. Despite the pope’s call for greater solidarity across the globe, Santorum’s theology remains a theology of the USA.

Fundamentally, this is a moral issue. As Pope Benedict puts it, “our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others”. Environmental ecology is thus intricately related to human ecology. It is entirely inconsistent to respect sexuality while taking a hedonistic approach to the exploitation of nature, and vice versa. “The book of nature is one and indivisible,” says the pope. But Santorum seeks not only to divide the book of nature, but to violently rip it apart. Is it any wonder that his theology can be twisted into disrespecting immigrants and the poor, supporting torture,  and promising war and destruction on his country’s enemies?

I will end with how Pope Benedict ends his environmental message: If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation”. There’s a lesson for Santorum in there somewhere. A true theological lesson.


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