Best of 2009: Why green Catholics are not communists


Pope BenedictFirst published September 2009

As various commentators have indicated one of the significant features of the recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate by Pope Benedict XVI is its explicit mention of environmental themes.

The Pope's contributions are not startling or unusual. He emphasises the importance of stewardship over all creation, the grave duty to hand on to future generations something worth having, the dangers of consumerism, the squandering of resources and the deep interconnections between human existence and the rest of creation.

Two significant elements are his linking our concern with the environment with the larger issues of respect for life, creating a new 'seamless garment' of social teaching; and his constant concern for the impact on the poor of environmental degradation. These are welcome and timely observations.

Interestingly this new development in social teaching is not in tune with some of the Pope's natural constituency. Many conservative Catholics have shown scant regard for environmental issues and publicly expressed scepticism in particular about global warming. For them environmentalism has become the new communism.

Indeed environmentalists are sometimes called 'watermelons, green on the outside, red on the inside'. They are painted in extreme terms as 'neo-pagans' and anyone showing concern for the environment is tarred with the same brush. The parallels with the Church's attitude to communism in the '50s and '60s are clear. Anyone with an interest in social justice was suspect then, as those with environmental concerns are now.

Things changed a bit for the former when Paul VI issued his encyclical on development issues, Populorum Progressio ('On the development of peoples'), which the Wall Street Journal referred to as 'warmed up Marxism'.

Now with the issuing of Caritas in Veritate perhaps environmentalism will be less anathema among conservative commentators. With the Pope showing tinges of green it will be less difficult to attack those interested in protecting the environment.

But the question has arisen, just how green is the pope? In a recent article on the Acton Institute website, commentator Samuel Gregg has responded, 'not so green', concluding that 'Benedict's 'greenness' turns out to be rather pale'.

He rightly notes that Benedict upholds the priority of human life and grounds his environmentalism in the Christian notion of stewardship. In this regard Benedict is no different from the majority of Christian environmentalists who do the same.

Again he rightly notes the Pope's insistence on the interconnectedness of being, as do the majority of Christian environmentalists. He also rightly notes that 'the phrases 'climate change' or 'global warming' appear nowhere in Caritas in Veritate'.

However he places special significance on this lack of reference to climate change and global warming:

'Benedict has been careful not to prejudge the science of this complex subject ... As someone who has labored ceaselessly for the priority of truth over ideology, Benedict knows that neither international organisations nor public opinion determine the truth about climate change and its causes. That's a question for science, and many reputable scientists dispute aspects of the prevailing tenets of climate change to which some environmentalists seem religiously wedded ... As anyone who has studied his life and thought knows, Joseph Ratzinger has never been intimidated by political correctness.'

In hermeneutic circles this is called 'reading the silences', seeking to make sense of what is not said as well as what is said. It is a fraught strategy always subject to the emergence of further evidence.

Well, now the further evidence is in. In a recent general audience (Wednesday 26 August 2009) Benedict  explicitly expressed his support for discussion on 'the urgent issue of climate change' to be dealt with at the United Nations.

In this context a number of references to his encyclical make clear the link between this 'urgent issue' and the matters raised therein. Taken together with the Vatican's own efforts to be carbon-neutral, these do not look like the words and deeds of a climate change sceptic. Far from being pale green, he looks almost emerald green!

It is interesting to trace the history of the environmental movement from its iconic beginnings with the publication in 1962 of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, through its fringe status in the '60s and '70s, as it gradually become more and more mainstream.

While there have obviously been extreme positions which romanticise and divinise nature, the fact remains that human existence is and always will be biologically grounded and so dependent on the proper functioning of the biosphere for its own continued existence.

As Benedict rightly points out, our failure to respect our environmental limits impacts on us all, but most of all on the poor. To ignore those limits is to fall prey to the temptation of the serpent in the garden, 'you shall be like gods'. But we are not gods but 'earth-beings', the play of words evoked by the name Adam. It is the archetypal temptation, to which one would think Christians would be most attuned.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. He has coauthored a book with Pentecostal theologian Shane Clifton, entitled Globalization and the Mission of the Church. 

Topic tags: pope benedict, caritas in veritate, global warming, climate change skeptics, neo-paganism, communism, marx



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Existing comments

Sadly, I feel Neil Ormerod is creating the 'divide' he writes about - "Many conservative Catholics have shown scant regard for environmental issues and publicly expressed scepticism in particular about global warming. For them environmentalism has become the new communism."

Before condemning us climate change sceptics to the dinosaur age, maybe Neil needs to allow us the same theological analysis he granted Pope Benedict in defence against Samuel Gregg, "In hermeneutic circles this is called 'reading the silences', seeking to make sense of what is not said as well as what is said. It is a fraught strategy always subject to the emergence of further evidence."

The contibution by Church theologians to the issue of environmentalism is still in its infancy, but, the Pope has set the famework very well - see Pope Benedict's New Year Message where he speaks of "The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics.[28] Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others," quoting his own encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

Scepticism can be as brave a response as activism at times.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 08 January 2010

I think Neil is writing of the near-kneejerk response of conservative Catholics with little scientific knowledge to the embrace of environmentalism by western Marxists in the '70's (a little hypocritically, given the devastation being wrought behind the Iron Curtain).

Elsewhere, I have summarised this as "the great socialist experiments were failing due to the inherent sclerosis of centralised planning. Thus it was that disillusioned Western Marxists and fellow travellers picked up climate change as an "issue" with which to continue their "critique" of Western corporate capitalism.
"Anti-Marxist culture warriors, free of the encumbrance of scientific expertise, girded their loins to fight off the leftie challenge, using the proven methods of the tobacco industry."

Is Senator Minchin Catholic?

If you're sceptical about human-caused climate change, William Ruddiman's "Plows, Plagues and Petroleum - How Humans Took Control of Climate" is a valuable introduction to Holocene climate history.

Also, there's an exchange of views on the science between "david_fta" and "philip_jr" at
David Arthur | 08 January 2010

Why am I not surprised that (conservative) catholics pay scant notice to climate change, after all it was their church that condemned Galileo for believing that the stars orbit around the sun.
Alex Njoo | 08 January 2010


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