Friday, June 19, 2015

Papal warming: strange bedfellows

After ascending the Throne of Saint Peter, one of Pope Francis' first papal communications was an apostolic exhortation, the Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). In it, Pope Francis demonstrates something about himself, his ideology, and his ideological roots. For in this work, Pope Francis argues for a more ethical approach to economics and the redistribution of wealth. As I explained previously, this approach is nothing more than the 19th century ideology of corporatism, wherein it is supposed that society is an organic whole that should be divided into different parts, according to the function served. The long and short of this point of view is not wealth redistribution--which is how many on the Left wrongly saw it--but rather wealth stagnation. It is an ideology, an economic and political system, then necessarily limits economic mobility (again, exactly contrary to where those applauding it think it leads).

For more details, readers are free to follow the above link and see my analysis in full. But I need to note one element of the Evangelii Gaudium and corporatism that I really did not address. Namely, that both assume an expertise on all matters economic on the part of the state in general. In other words, there is a strong technocratic thread running throughout the piece, though almost always just below the surface. Note that the idea of technocratic control is explicitly at odds with the fundamental assumption of corporatism, the idea of an organic whole that functions as it should naturally. Of course, this is one of the reasons why corporatism is both antiquated and unworkable: no one actually has the knowledge base for total economic planning and control, a reality that the old Soviet Union learned the hard way, to put it mildly (it was communist, not corporatist of course, but a centrally planned economy is a feature of both). This same kind of conflict, between ideology and the means of achieving a goal of that ideology, appears in the latest papal communication from Pope Francis, his papal encyclical Laudato Si (Praise Be To You).

The difference between an encyclical and an apostolic exhortation is technical, really. Suffice it to say that the former carries slightly more weight than the latter, insofar as Church doctrine is concerned. The subject matter of this latest encyclical is global warming/climate change and in it, Pope Francis stakes out a very clear position for the Church: climate change needs to be taken seriously and addressed fully by the Faithful and everyone else. He quotes a letter from the bishops of South Africa in this regard:
Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.
The encyclical is very long, and in it Pope Francis delves into other things, like pollution and waste. But the central thrust of it is that climate change needs to be addressed immediately because it's very real, it's been caused by man's activities, and it's very dangerous. That and the fact that the poor will be the ones who suffer the most if we fail to act (thus bringing the discussion back to inequality). There is also a rather pathetic attempt to justify (for obvious reasons) unfettered population growth.

Through it all, Pope Francis speaks with a fair amount of certainty, with regard to the climate, scientific aspects of processes, and economic/social consequences of climate change. In this regard, I want to focus on two passages in the piece:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.
And:
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.
Again, it is important to note the certainty here. While I could go into the fact that both the global climate and the global economy are open, complex systems and that we lack the capabilities and knowledge to actually model either in full (especially if one takes it as a given than man's activities can have a significant impact on the global climate), that's not really where I want to go. Rather, I want to note that what we see here is Pope Francis assuming certainty because of the supposed expertise of others, because of a "very solid scientific consensus." This from the Vicar of Christ who supposedly speaks with infallibility on matters of doctrine.

In a very real sense, Pope Francis has subordinated Church doctrine to the current crop of technocrats. Think about it. Pope Francis is not recommending that the Faithful simply be better stewards of the Earth for the sake of the Earth itself (which I think would be completely fair and even laudable). Instead, he is trying to direct everyone--not even just the Faithful--to accept the scientific consensus and to follow its prescriptions, not by virtue of his understanding but by virtue of their supposed expertise. To me, that is a simply amazing thing for the Pope to do in an official communication. Pope Francis started down this road in Evangelii Gaudium, but he never went all the way, he never completely surrendered his own perceived authority to powers beyond the control of the Church, to a cadre of twenty-first century technocrats.

While many are congratulating the Pope and the Church on this communication, part of me can't help but wonder if this sounded the death knell for the power of the Church. For instance, how will Pope Francis--or any member of the clergy--be able to maintain the Church's position on the sanctity of life if the consensus of expert opinions is at odds with that position? I submit that he will not be able to, not if he wants to be consistent.

Pope Francis, in his eagerness to curry world favor, enhance the image of the Church, and justify its role in the current world, is demonstrating why the power structures of the Church are outmoded, and why the fundamental ideology he imagines for the Church is hopelessly anachronistic.

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