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ROME – Has there ever been so much attention paid to a papal encyclical before its publication? At least we now know it will be entitled Laudato Si. Phil Lawler is right to say that all the speculation is over the top; we pundits just can’t help ourselves. I must, however, plead guilty to the lesser (or is it greater?) charge of iconoclasm.

The main reason there is so much buzz about the encyclical is that it’s about the secular religion of our time: the environment. Pope Benedict generated quite a bit of excitement as the first “green” pope but he pales in comparison to Pope Francis, who has said he would like the encyclical to influence a United Nations climate change meeting later this year. Those of us who have tried to tone down the hype are accused of “criticizing” the pope and generally being mean-spirited. Lawler helpfully recalls how much the environmentalists have done to spin the encyclical in their preferred direction. For example, Yale University hosted a wide-ranging discussion this spring and no one has accused it of being prejudicial, probably due to the shock of an Ivy-League institution saying nice things about the pope.

I would have preferred to wait until the publication of the encyclical to voice my own opinions, but letting one side of the debate dominate the media discussion does not seem like the prudent thing to do. So, after seeing a few media reports appear in late December about what the pope may say about climate change, I addressed one of these letters to the subject. Unlike other commentators, I worked on environmental issues at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and assumed that experience may give me something useful to say.

None of this matters to the high priests of leftist Catholic environmentalism. Someone named Sean Michael Winters at the National Catholic Reporter, whom I’ve never met or corresponded with but is apparently obsessed with the Acton Institute, called my comments “clumsy” and “ridiculous” and expects “conniptions” from me when the encyclical finally arrives. (I can assure him of my emotional stability regardless of what the text says.) I was disinvited from the recent Vatican seminar on climate change because of a false rumor that the Acton Institute was involved with a Heartland Institute parallel event. If I’d been allowed to attend, here’s what I would have asked: Why must an ancient religion with a rich tradition of theological and philosophical reflection embrace a movement that has been around for about 50 years and can’t decide if the earth is cooling, warming, or just “changing” in any discernible way due to human activity?

Of course, we know the answer. Climate change has become the “moral issue” of our day, as the UN Secretary-General and countless other politicians and institutional leaders have put it. The godless apocalypse is nigh: We cannot go on producing and consuming as we have because it’s “unsustainable”; we must therefore act now before it’s too late. The problem is the people aren’t buying it. Polling data from across the globe put climate change way down their list of concerns. So, a lot of talk and money are being thrown at the people to help them change their mind. “Sustainability” has become big business, especially at universities. If there ever was an elitist/populist wedge issue, this is it, with Pope Francis and the Holy See on the wrong side of it.

Defining Terms

So, what exactly is meant by “sustainability”? The term originates in 1987 with the World Commission on Environment and Development’s report titled Our Common Future: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That sounds reasonable enough, but the concept is so broad as to be meaningless. The 2002 UN Summit on Sustainable Development, which I attended as a delegate of the Holy See, came 10 years after the Rio Earth Summit and sought to balance social, economic, and environmental concerns. The concept today seems to be about fighting poverty while tackling climate change (as in a “new climate economy”). Once again, who can be against it? And what are we supposed to do about it?

The devil is in the details. What exactly is “unsustainable” about today’s development models and who decides that we’re on the wrong course and will do something about it? It should come as no surprise that the institutional supporters of sustainable development think that unregulated capitalism and industrialization are problems to be solved by, well, their own institutions. Capitalism leads to a whole series of bad outcomes (especially inequality and pollution) that can only be avoided through greater centralization and planning, which means more power to the state to tax, spend, and regulate virtually every area of our lives. The same state now has the power to “redefine” and replace family, business, and religion when it should complement and support them.

The point of sustainable development is not to focus too much on the environment, a cause that often appears to be a luxury only the well-off can worry about, but to include it as a part of the fight against poverty that requires the redistribution of wealth. The old wealth-is-a-zero-sum-game canard that globalization had proven false is now reborn: the poor are poor because the rich are rich, so it is morally necessary to take money and technology from the rich and give them to the poor.

On one level, the sustainable development movement and the Catholic Church would seem to be perfect allies for a better world, except that they aren’t. Early proponents of sustainable development such as current Vatican adviser Jeffrey Sachs once spoke openly of population control as a key factor in development but no longer do. Do they and the Church simply agree to disagree, and will population control remain a key but hidden element of sustainable development? I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation.

From an economic perspective, there is little awareness that central planning of the economy has failed everywhere it has been tried with disastrous consequences for the poor. If such planning doesn’t work at the national level, why should anyone think it will work at the global level? Are the people who run international institutions wiser or more virtuous than those at national ones? Doesn’t placing the entire system under one authority make competition less, and corruption more, likely? The real shame of the sustainable development discussion is that there is a mountain of economic research on how countries escape poverty that is being neglected for reasons having to do more with preferred ideology and institutional self-preservation than actually helping the poor.

What's the Point?

To return to the earlier question: Why would the Catholic Church feel the need to support a movement that doesn’t value the family and children and doesn’t actually help the poor? Part of the explanation is surely a reluctance to “baptize” the status quo, i.e., liberal democratic capitalism, especially in its American form, even if many of the supporters of sustainable development and their money come from the United States. The tendency to rely on the abundance of material wealth to provide for our needs can shift to our focus away from the need to cultivate personal and social virtues. Another could be the need to engage the world as it is without imposing itself on it – accompanying and listening rather than judging and proselytizing. Fair enough. But in order to “be” the Church in such settings, it may have to separate itself from prevailing beliefs; when and how has been and will be a matter of debate. The danger in becoming “worldly” is not just that it is a betrayal of the Church’s mission; the Church actually ends up becoming less effective in the world.

Although many Protestants use it to speak mainly about church finances, the concept of stewardship over the earth and all its resources is a remedy to the problem of the Church’s engagement with the world. During my days attending UN and episcopal conference meetings on the environment, I’d occasionally meet Catholics who said they didn’t like stewardship, because it gave the impression of everyone just taking care of their own property and not caring for the rest of creation – which would indeed be a problem if it were the actual teaching. It’s not. Unlike sustainability, stewardship promotes private property along with human initiative and creativity; it doesn’t require us to wait for a UN development plan to come along every 15 years. But it also recognizes that what we do with our property ought to be in line with God’s will and for the common good. It recognizes the role of a providential Creator and the goodness of creation often marred, but not irredeemably so, by the reality of human sin. It allows for freedom and responsibility at the individual and social levels without prescribing how they must be structured, as if there were any such permanent, universally valid arrangement. Virtue and grace remain more important than getting the right structures in place.

Contrary to what Winters assumes, I am not recommending that Catholic social teaching worship Hayek or laissez-faire economics. When, as one now-former Vatican official told a professor friend of mine, the Austrian school of economics is directly opposed to Catholic teaching and should never be taught at pontifical universities, we have a major problem and a lack of authentic dialogue between the Church and economics. Think of the work of development economists like Julian Simon, P.T. Bauer, and Hernando de Soto that has gone unnoticed by many Catholics. I fear that the same is now happening in others social sciences.

In a sense, the Church can become too political by not being political enough, i.e., by not taking into account the provisional and changing nature of partisan views. If the Church understood politics in the older sense of the word, as the coming and living together of a people, it may be less tempted to intervene in and strike some kind of left-right balance between partisan issues, which is what politics has become. Stewardship is a superior, Christian understanding of creation than that proposed by sustainable development and one that the Church can and should promote in a transpolitical, non-partisan way, certainly at the Vatican and the pontifical academies and universities, maybe even at the UN.


Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C.