In Pope Francis’ sprawling new encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” there are many mansions: A meditation on biblical ecology, a discussion of environmental policy, a critique of consumerism, even a reflection on the perils of social media.
What everyone wants to know, of course, is whether the pope takes sides in our most polarizing debate. And he clearly does. After this document, there’s no doubting where Francis stands in the great argument of our time.
But I don’t mean the argument between liberalism and conservatism. I mean the argument between dynamists and catastrophists.
Dynamists are people who see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past. They do not deny that problems exist, but they believe we can innovate our way through them while staying on an ever-richer, ever-more-liberated course.
Dynamists of the left tend to put their faith in technocratic government; dynamists of the right, in the genius of free markets. But both assume that modernity is a success story whose best days are ahead.
Catastrophists, on the other hand, see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled. What’s more, they believe that things cannot go on as they are: That the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis, disaster, dégringolade.
Like dynamists, catastrophists can be on the left or right, stressing different agents of our imminent demise. But they’re united in believing that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.
This is Pope Francis’ position, and the controlling theme of his encyclical. It includes, as many liberals hoped and certain conservatives feared, a call to action against climate change, which will no doubt cause Republicans to squirm during political campaigns to come.
But reading “Laudato Si’” simply as a case for taking climate change seriously misses the depth of its critique — which extends to the whole “technological paradigm” of our civilization, all the ways (economic and cultural) that we live now.
This is a document aligned with the scientific consensus on climate that excoriates the modern scientific mindset as, in effect, a 500-year mistake. It’s a document calling for global action, even a “new world political authority,” that’s drenched in frank contempt for the existing global leadership class. It’s a document that urges a rapid move away from fossil fuels while explicitly criticizing the leading avenue for doing so — a cap-and-trade regime — as too “quick and easy,” too compromised by greed and self-interest, to “allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.”
And while it includes hopeful passages, the encyclical’s most pungent lines are apocalyptic: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”
This pungency is what really distinguishes “Laudato Si’” from prior papal documents.
Francis’ predecessors attempted versions of his double pitch — urging Roman Catholics to recognize environmental devastation as a manifestation of the individualism the Church has long condemned, while inviting secular readers to consider religious alternatives to our present way of life. But its urgency, sweep, and apocalyptic flavor may make “Laudato Si’” more immediately influential, more likely to make both audiences think anew.
However, its catastrophism also leaves this pope more open to empirical criticism. For instance, he doesn’t grapple sufficiently with evidence that the global poor have become steadily less poor under precisely the world system he decries — a reality that has complicated implications for environmentalism.
Nor are questions related to population growth successfully resolved. If resource constraints are really as severe as the pope implies, and technological solutions as limited in power, it isn’t entirely clear how the planet can sustain the steadily growing population the Catholic vision of marriage and fecundity implies. To credibly make the case that a billions-strong human race can keep having large families, you might need a more, well, dynamist view of the human future than this encyclical contains.
Finally, it’s possible to believe that climate change is happening while doubting that it makes “the present world system … certainly unsustainable,” as the pope suggests. Perhaps we’ll face a series of chronic but manageable problems instead; perhaps “radical change” can, in fact, be persistently postponed.
Indeed, perhaps our immediate future fits neither the dynamist nor the catastrophist framework.
We might have entered a kind of stagnationist position, a sustainable decadence, in which the issues Pope Francis identifies percolate without reaching a world-altering boil.
In that case, the deep critique our civilization deserves will have to be advanced without the threat of imminent destruction. The arguments in “Laudato Si’” will still resonate, but they will have to be structured around a different peril: Not a fear that the particular evils of our age can’t last, but the fear that actually, they can.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.