I have been spending the past few hours reading Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato si’, alongside a document called An Ecomodernist Manifesto (sympathetically reviewed here), which was written by a group of prominent environmental thinkers and development specialists such as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, many of whom are affiliated with a think-tank called The Breakthrough Institute. Both documents make for fascinating reading.
I had expected the encyclical to be written in that very high-flown, profound but impenetrable style that some wags have dubbed “Vaticanese” – which is the main reason by most Catholics never read papal encyclicals: they just can’t get through them. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Pope’s encyclical actually reads quite well. I have a feeling that many Catholics might actually peruse this one, quite carefully.
I hadn’t gone very far in my reading, though, when I noticed something that quite shocked me. I had assumed from my reading that the Pope, who originally trained as a chemist, was a fairly orthodox evolutionist, apart from his insistence that God had to have created the human soul. But over and over again in his encyclical, the Pope proclaimed that each and every species on Earth was personally designed by God. I’ll say more about that below – as we’ll see, it is precisely this belief which explains why species conservation is so important to the Pope.
The skinny: what does Pope Francis actually say on environmental issues?
For the benefit of those readers who are curious, I’ll be discussing the scientific, economic and moral aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical in my next post. In that post, I’ll also be contrasting the Pope’s vision for the future of humanity with that of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. In today’s post, however, I’ll keep my remarks on environmental issues very brief. Here are the highlights (all bolding in the quotes below is mine – VJT):
(1) Pope Francis’ remarks on global warming are more cautious than I expected. He writes that “a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity” (paragraph 24), and after alluding to how warming can create a vicious cycle, causing a loss of biodiversity, the melting of polar ice-caps, the build-up of methane in the atmosphere and ocean acidification, the Pope adds: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us” (para. 25). Pope Francis also points out that poor countries – especially in Africa – bear the brunt of the effects of global warming.
(2) Perhaps the most tendentious scientific statement in the Pope’s encyclical relates to species extinctions: “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity” (para. 33). The Pope’s reference to “thousands” of species going extinct each year seems somewhat exaggerated: according to the most recent and authoritative estimate by Stuart Pimm et al. (Science 30 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6187), the current extinction rate of species is actually 100 out of every million species, per year – which means that if there are five to ten million species on Earth, about 500 to 1,000 species are going extinct every year. That’s high, but it’s not catastrophic. And even Pimm’s estimate of species extinction rates may be too high.
(3) Pope Francis forthrightly declares that we have no right to destroy living species (para. 33) – even species of microorganisms (para. 34), since they are all part of a divinely established natural equilibrium. The Pope approvingly quotes (Orthodox) Patriarch Bartholomew’s remarks on “sins against creation”: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins” (para. 8). The Pope does not qualify his remarks here: from what I can tell, he appears to regard the intentional destruction of a species as intrinsically wrong.
(4) The Pope praises solar energy and calls for “the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources” (para. 172), but thankfully, he doesn’t condemn nuclear energy, and he wisely refrains from endorsing any specific solution to the problem of global warming. As he puts it: “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views” (para. 61).
(5) Pope Francis seems to endorse a reduction in car usage: “Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation” (para. 153).
(6) Remarkably, the Pope says nothing in his encyclical about cutting down on meat-eating – which is odd, as the ecological footprint of meat-eaters is considerably larger than that of people who eat vegetables and fish instead. However, the Pope condemns the wastefulness of modern fishing methods, and expresses his concern that the Earth’s oceans are being over-fished.
(7) Pope Francis appears genuinely conflicted regarding genetically modified organisms (paras. 133-134), acknowledging on the one hand that they have contributed to economic growth in some regions, and that no proof exists that they are harmful. At the same time, he expresses concern that cultivation of GMOs tends to concentrate farming land in the hands of a wealthy few, impoverishing small-scale farmers, and he adds that the expansion of land devoted to GMOs places local ecosystems at risk.
(8) Pope Francis declares that the world’s prosperous countries have acquired their wealth, in part, by fouling up the environments of poor countries: “A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining” (para. 51). He adds that multinational companies feel free to do in poor countries “what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world.” To remedy this problem, he writes: “The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development” (para. 52). “As the bishops of Bolivia have stated, ‘the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused'” (para. 170).
(9) The Pope categorically rejects attempts to pin the blame for poverty on overpopulation, arguing that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” (para. 50), and he also vehemently condemns abortion (para. 120) and embryo experimentation (para. 136). Rather, he says, it is “extreme and selective consumerism” which is responsible for poverty. At the same time, the Pope distances himself from the rosy view, advocated by some economists, that the Earth’s resources are infinite – a view which, he says, results in the planet being “squeezed dry beyond every limit” (para. 106). He continues: “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world” (para. 161).
(10) The Pope praises “small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing” (para. 129). However, Pope Francis condemns the much larger “economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector,” as they “end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops” (para. 129).
(11) The Pope calls for “an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons‘” (para. 174) – especially the Earth’s oceans, which are imperiled by over-fishing. At the same time, he says, we need to “keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity, which grants freedom to develop the capabilities present at every level of society, while also demanding a greater sense of responsibility for the common good from those who wield greater power” (para. 196). Human ecology is inseparable from the common good (para. 156) and the State has the right and duty to defend the common good (para. 157). The Pope adds: “In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (para. 158).
(12) In his encyclical, Pope Francis explicitly endorses the Precautionary Principle: “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (para. 186).
(13) The Pope resoundingly affirms the uniqueness of human beings, who are made in the image and likeness of their Creator, and he condemns attempts to “put all living beings on the same level,” or to “deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails” (para. 90). On this point, Pope Francis makes a simple yet profound observation: “When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then ‘our overall sense of responsibility wanes'” (para. 118).
(14) The Pope also condemns biocentrism as morally flawed: “Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued” (para. 118). Pope Francis also attacks what he calls “a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility” (para. 90). The Pope is evidently no friend of the cult of Gaia.
(15) Finally, and most importantly, Pope Francis continually reiterates throughout his encyclical that we cannot overcome the current ecological crisis without a fundamental change in our spiritual attitudes towards God’s creation, and a change of heart which inspires us to change our self-centered way of life. Technology alone won’t solve the problem – for the underlying problem is a spiritual one.
The Pope’s strong views on the design of each and every living species
What really struck me, though, when I read Pope Francis’ encyclical, was his strong belief that each and every kind of creature is designed by God, and that human beings were planned by God as the jewel of His earthly creation, being made in the image of their Maker. The Pope mentions evolution only in passing:
Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. (Para. 18)
By contrast, Pope Francis’ references to God’s design of each and every living species – and in particular, the human species – pervade his latest encyclical. I shall simply list them here, in order:
…Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). (Para. 12)
In the first creation account in the Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating humanity. After the creation of man and woman, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26)…
The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary“. (Para. 65)
The Catechism clearly and forcefully criticizes a distorted anthropocentrism: “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things”. (Para. 69)
76. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature”, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. (Para. 76)
77. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6). This tells us that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more. The creating word expresses a free choice. (Para. 77)
The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship”. (Para. 80)
The Pope’s quotation in the foregoing passage is taken from Aristotle’s Physics, Book II, lectio 14. Curiously, leading Intelligent Design advocate Dr. William Dembski discusses the very same passage in his 2001 online essay, ID as a theory of technological evolution, where he remarks that “at the heart of the current debate over intelligent design is whether biological systems exhibit some feature that cannot be ascribed to nature as such but in addition requires art or design to complete what, as Aristotle put it, ‘nature cannot bring to a finish,'” and he suggests that “specified complexity is a reliable empirical marker of actual design, and that specified complexity is instantiated in actual biological systems.”
But I digress. Allow me to continue with my quotes on design from the Pope’s latest encyclical:
81. Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou”. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object. (Para. 81)
“Even if we postulate a process of evolution”!!!! That’s a lukewarm endorsement if ever I heard one.
84. Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. (Para. 84)
85. God has written a precious book, “whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe”. (Para. 85)
Lovely quote that one – enough to warm the cockles of any Intelligent Design theorist’s heart.
86. The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety “come from the intention of the first agent” who willed that “what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another”, inasmuch as God’s goodness “could not be represented fittingly by any one creature”. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships. We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan. As the Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other”. (Para. 86)
When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. (Para. 118)
Any legitimate intervention will act on nature only in order “to favour its development in its own line, that of creation, as intended by God“. (Para. 132)
Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality. (Para. 138)
The Pope appears to believe that life is mysterious and inexhaustibly rich, and that we haven’t even scratched the surface of it yet.
To sum up: if I didn’t know better, I’d conclude that the Pope was an Intelligent Design sympathizer. He certainly doesn’t talk like any evolutionary scientist that I know of – certainly not like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne or for that matter, Larry Moran, and not even like theistic evolutionists such as Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway. For while Drs. Miller and Conway hold is that while God designed the process of evolution to ultimately produce intelligent creatures, He did not design each and every species. The Pope, on the other hand, emphatically affirms that God did design each and every species – especially humans. There are no accidents; everything is planned.
Or as St. Augustine put it 1600 years ago in his City of God (v.11), in a passage that was later approvingly quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica I, q. 103, art. 5):
Not only heaven and earth, not only man and angel, even the bowels of the lowest animal, even the wing of the bird, the flower of the plant, the leaf of the tree, hath God endowed with every fitting detail of their nature.”
Now we can understand why Pope Francis is so upset about species destruction: he thinks it’s an outrageous interference on our part with God’s plan for human beings and for the biosphere as a whole. God has explicitly willed the entire system of inter-dependencies which link us with other creatures. As such, species extinction constitutes a form of blasphemy on man’s part:
“Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things”. (Para. 69)
84. Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. (Para. 84)
As the Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other”. (Para. 86)
Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. (Para. 140)
Is the Pope right in arguing that the destruction of species is intrinsically immoral? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s next exciting installment, to find out! In the meantime, the take-home point I’d like to make for today is that the kind of evolution endorsed by Pope Francis is one which would cause evolutionary scientists of any stripe – Darwinists, neutralists, mutationists (like Masatoshi Nei), “self-organizing” evolutionists (like James Shapiro), or even theistic evolutionists (like Miller and Conway) – to throw up their hands in horror. Only an Intelligent Design theorist could stomach it.