Due to teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s thunderous—and divisive—speech to the United Nations last week, climate change is getting another moment in the sun. It may be tempting to brush off her comments as youthful hyperbole, but Thunberg’s speech does not stand alone. She’s the most prominent figure in a worldwide movement of young people who are gravely concerned about the environment, to the point of skipping school to attend protests and vowing never to have children.
And the movement is not confined to secular discourse: it coincides with escalating rhetoric from the Vatican about environmentalism. This issue is quickly becoming central to contemporary Catholicism, just as economic justice rose to the fore in the late 19th century. This is not merely a passing phase either. The language the Church uses to discuss environmentalism today will have profound ramifications for how we think about God, humanity, creation, and salvation itself.
Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si was acclaimed as being for environmental justice what Pope Leo XIII’s landmark work Rerum Novarum was for economic justice in 1891. But the comparison is more aspirational than accurate. Though Pope Francis’s criticism of technocratic corporations and his concern for proper stewardship of natural resources is well-expressed, his encyclical lacks the incisive doctrinal clarity of Rerum Novarum. Pope Leo XIII, after his criticisms of socialism and unjust applications of capitalism, laid out an entire philosophy of economic justice based on Catholic tradition. He focused particularly on how the doctrine of subsidiarity can give us a framework for economic justice and showed clearly how this philosophy can be put into practice.
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But Laudato Si, unlike Rerum Novarum, falls into the trap of adopting secular language to describe what is essentially a spiritual problem. It’s rife with the doomsday language that dominates secular environmentalism. Doomsday language does not lend itself to well-rounded philosophical frameworks or to judicious, practical applications. Instead, it promotes panic, and panic leads to moral compromise.
When people panic, they feel justified in ignoring facts. That is, unfortunately, the defining characteristic of the environmental movement. An example on the secular side is this summer’s media explosion over the allegedly disastrous number of fires burning in the Amazon rainforest. Thunberg herself spoke about the fires, saying there were a “record amount”. French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted that the fires were an “international crisis” and included a photo of a fiery inferno consuming the rainforest. Other environmental activists have linked these allegedly high levels to man-made climate change and blamed the fires on developed regions like Europe and the United States.
Eventually it became clear that environmental activists had ignored some facts about the situation. Macron’s photo, which swept the internet, was not of the 2019 fires: it was a picture from 2003. NASA itself reported that the number of fires this year in the Amazon is at or below average for the past 15 years. The fires are well below the record year of 2005, which saw more than twice as many fires. In any event, most of them are routine agricultural burns to make the land arable, a practice that permits farmers in developing countries to grow food for their communities.
Sure, there are many fires in the Amazon basin—perhaps too many. But that conversation cannot begin with hyperbole and falsehoods.
The unjustified moral panic over the Amazon fires is not unique. The last five decades are full of climate doomsday predictions that have been proven false. Some—like the 1970 proclamation that, by 2000, the world would be gripped in a new Ice Age—are exactly the opposite of current climate panics.
Of course, this information should not be used to say that we have no responsibility for the environment. Modern industry has introduced new environmental challenges that, as stewards of Creation, we have a responsibility to address, such as the horrifying levels of pollution in the Ganges River in India and the mountains of garbage in cities like Manila. But the last fifty years have shown with certainty that simply because climate change activists say that the end of the world is coming does not mean they are right. The facts show that the environment is much more resilient than we give it credit for being, and that worldwide climate systems tend to fluctuate around an average sustainable temperature.
For climate change activists, these facts simply don’t matter. What matters is that they see an impending climate disaster—a disaster which they believe justifies distorting the truth. This is exactly the same kind of prevarication Catholics must watch out for. Because many leaders in the Church—including the Holy Father—have come to believe that there is an impending climate disaster, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see doctrinal distortions as a result.
Consider, for example, the looming moral disaster of the Amazon synod. In the wake of Laudato Si and other doomsday declarations by Pope Francis, the synod appears poised to adopt such a laudatory tone towards the environment that it threatens to veer into neo-paganism, denigrate the special role of humanity in creation, and subvert the Church’s primary function of bringing souls to salvation.
The working document of the Amazon Synod implies that moral superiority is equivalent with living in harmony with the environment. For example, the document elevates the indigenous people of Guaviare as moral arbiters because of their closeness to the environment. Unfortunately, these peoples include tribes that participate in shamanism, which is often a form of demon worship. The document says nothing about entering into an evangelical conversation with these tribes. It may have (for instance) simultaneously encouraged them to worship Jesus Christ while inviting the rest of us to learn from their love of nature. Instead, it merely scolds Western Christian cultures while unequivocally lauding neo-pagan cultures.
A Catholic exorcist once related to me a conversation he had with a demon during an exorcism, in which the demon told him that the Satanic forces will use anything—even inherently good things like work, human love, and family—to distract a soul from God. “Anything but God,” the demon said. That has sobering implications for the contemporary conversation about the environment within the Catholic Church.
Today, that conversation is so dominated by fear that it is indeed distracting us from God. By insisting on an impending environmental collapse without acknowledging that the climate regularly fluctuates, Catholic environmentalists have cut themselves off from reasonable conversations about what proper stewardship of the environment looks like.
By elevating neo-pagan tribes to the level of moral arbiters and castigating Western Catholics en masse, activists within the Church lose sight of the Church’s primary purpose, which is to affect the salvation of human souls—the bringing of souls into harmony with God—through its preaching and sacramental ministries. All other Church activities must flow from that purpose and not from any other, lest we fall into a trap set by the forces of darkness.
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