July 9, 2009
As the world heats up and economic dislocation ravages the poor, religious leaders offer up their diagnoses and prescriptions
GLOBALISATION, technology and growth are in themselves neither positive or negative; they are whatever humanity makes of them. Summed up like that, the central message of a keenly awaited papal pronouncement on the social and economic woes of the world may sound like a statement of the obvious.
But despite some lapses into trendy jargon, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), a 144-page encyclical issued by Pope Benedict XVI on July 7th, is certainly not a banal or trivial document. It will delight some people, enrage others and occupy a prominent place among religious leaders’ competing attempts to explain and address the problems of an overheated, overcrowded planet.
From photogenic Anglicans like Richard Chartres, the bishop of London (pictured with a Noah’s Ark of young climate-change lobbyists), to the Dalai Lama, lots of prominent religious figures have been feeling the need to broaden their message. They are moving away from the old stress on individual failings (stealing, lying, cheating) and talking more about the fate of humanity as a whole.
But Pope Benedict, for all his concern with cosmic issues, is certainly not watering down his insistence on old-fashioned religious virtues, including caution and sobriety. On many big public questions, he proposes a middle course between faith in scientific progress and nostalgia for a simpler past. People cannot expect to avoid the extremes, Benedict rather provocatively adds, when they are looking at the world through purely secular spectacles. “When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes,” he argues.
Displaying a better-than-usual sense of public relations, the Holy See released the document on the eve of a world leaders’ summit in L’Aquila, east of Rome (see article). And like many other big pronouncements from moral leaders, it will be seen as staking out ground ahead of the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December.
Encyclicals are the heaviest ammunition in the papacy’s intellectual arsenal. This one was delayed for more than two years as the Vatican’s thinkers struggled to keep abreast of developments in the world economy. But the original purpose has remained intact: to offer a Catholic response to a global marketplace that in Benedict’s elegant turn of phrase, “makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers.”
The document accepts the legitimacy of markets or profits, as long as they are not idolised, or elevated far above the human beings who are affected by economic decisions. But Benedict’s proposal for discerning the difference between healthy markets and pathological ones is uncompromising and offers no sops to the secular. An economy, he suggests, is working well when it allows individuals and societies to fulfil themselves in every way—something that in his view can happen only when God is involved.
The encyclical grafts this ideal of development in the service of God and man onto an insistence on Catholic morality in ethics. As Austen Ivereigh, a British Catholic writer, puts it, “the message is that you can’t believe in social justice if you also believe in abortion and euthanasia.” Giving short shrift to non-believers, the pope also argues that without “truth” in the Christian sense, “there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power.” This purist approach may risk narrowing the scope for the sort of tactical co-operation between believers and secularists that is emerging on many fronts, from the fight against malaria to weaning the world off hydrocarbons.
Still, some non-Catholics may agree (and some Catholics may disagree) with one of the pope’s more concrete proposals: an overhaul of global institutions—or in plainer language an expanded role for the United Nations or some other authority. The aim of this new structure would be “the management of globalisation”. Vatican aides said this was not a proposal for world government—but it did sound a bit like that. Such a body would need to be universally recognised, subject to international law and “vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice and respect for rights.” Its areas of competence would include managing the global economy, disarmament, food security, the environment and migration. This may alarm those who see global bureaucracies’ sloth, pride, envy, greed and gluttony (to name only a few deadly vices) as exemplars of human failing. But the Vatican’s longing for a stronger UN goes back to 2003, when it was shocked by the world body’s inability to stop the Iraq war.
Do as you would be done by
In any case, Benedict finds the roots of the economic crisis in wickedness. The global recession, he argues, is merely the latest effect of a tendency to confuse happiness and salvation with prosperity. But economic activity “cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic”. And the market should not be a place “where the strong subdue the weak”.
Throughout the document, leftish ideas about economics nestle alongside the austere moral reasoning that is a hallmark of the German-born pontiff. A conservative American Catholic, George Weigel, has claimed that only certain parts of it—the bits he liked—were written by Benedict; in other sections he detects the influence of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, one of the more radical sections of the Vatican bureaucracy.
In the case of other religious leaders, the message is simpler. The Dalai Lama, for example, has drawn attention to a potential disaster which looms in his home region of Tibet: the melting of glaciers which serve as “Asia’s water tower” by feeding the rivers on which billions of people depend. London’s Bishop Chartres has spearheaded efforts to make England’s established church much greener in its thinking and in its own behaviour. A plan called “Shrinking the Footprint” is intended to slash the carbon emissions of Anglican buildings, from cathedrals to vicarages to church halls.
And in Istanbul this week, dozens of prominent Islamic scholars delved into their tradition for answers to environmental problems. Originating in a land where water is very scarce, the Muslim faith has much to say about the need to use resources in a just and cautious way.
Still, the idea of restraining carbon emissions is not an easy sell in countries that have grown rich from selling hydrocarbons and have enough cash to import water and food. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based Islamic scholar and spiritual guide to the global Muslim Brotherhood, got a rave reception at the Istanbul meeting—but his speech focused more on matters of human hygiene than on the treatment of the natural world.
Another participant, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, is by comparison a trailblazer. Ali Gomaa has agreed to make the institution he heads—an office that issues fatwas, or rulings on ethical questions—carbon-neutral and is searching for carbon offsets in Egypt, a concept which few locals as yet understand. Islam’s ecological message is much more readily grasped in the endangered forests of Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, for example, there are 17,000 madrassas—and a local NGO, the Conservation and Religion Initiative, reports good progress in persuading teachers in those schools to preach and practise good stewardship. As a follow-up to the Istanbul gathering, Muslims and adherents of many other faiths will meet in Britain in November and present plans for greener management of their resources.
While Muslim greybeards deliberated, two leading figures in the eastern Christian world—the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, and the newly enthroned Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow—held a joint service nearby that signalled a warming in their relations and a common commitment to cool and generally improve the world. Patriarch Bartholomew, who is planning to host an eco-symposium in New Orleans in October, called for an investigation of the “deeper spiritual and moral causes” of the planet’s woes. Residing as he does near a narrow strait plied by giant tankers which bring oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, the Istanbul-based “green patriarch” was far ahead of the Vatican in calling pollution a sin.