Opinionista Ivo Vegter 30 June 2015

The eco-Pope: Critiquing a priestly critique of my critique

I expected to run up against offended greens after last week’s column on Pope Francis’s high-profile alignment of the Catholic Church with old school apocalyptic environmentalism. Instead, I got theology lessons from priests. Well, I’ll take my arguments where I can get them.

Religious philosophers are infamous for nitpicking. As early as the 17th century, several writers noted a theological debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Philosophically plausible, the question was probably apocryphal, and meant to satirise the tendency among theologians to debate minutiae while missing the big picture. (It is now moot, since a quantum physicist in Sweden answered it 15 years ago.)

Nitpicking about the finer points of theology distracts from more important points, even if that nitpicking is wrong. In last week’s column, about the eco-Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, I pointed out a basic error in the grasp Pope Francis has on economics and humanity’s relationship with natural resources. I also noted that in allying the Church with the green movement, he uses the same exaggerated fear mongering that characterises old school, fire-and-brimstone environmentalism.

Frankly, I expected blowback from greens offended by my description of the environmental movement as a modern religion akin to the Church, not from Catholics offended over the finer points of theology.

But it was a Catholic priest and a lawyer, Anthony Egan and Grant Tungay, both from the Jesuit Institute South Africa, who responded with a long piece on “the fallibility of critique”, naming me in the headline. It is an ironic retort, since unlike the Pope, I do not make any claims to divine infallibility.

The first few paragraphs point out that I, as a non-Catholic, may be exonerated for sharing in “a popular misconception, including among some Catholics, that anything a pope says is infallible”.

That is very gracious, but I don’t labour under any such misconception, and it misrepresents what I wrote.

The pair proceed to explain that “… there is nothing to stop us if we wanted to over-consume or consume in a way that is harmful apart from government intervention. It is this reality that the Pope is pointing to when he says we as consumers assume there is an unlimited supply of resources. We act as if there is”.

This misrepresents the Pope’s words, while repeating the central economic error he made.

I never thought, nor made the “mistaken claim” that all the Pope’s pronouncements are supposed to be infallible, or that this particular encyclical constituted infallible dogma. In fact, I wrote, “True, only some of the contents of encyclicals carry the weight of infallible dogma. … [but they] are supposed to command the serious respect and internal assent of those to whom it is addressed. This one, the Pope said, ‘is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching’.”

I linked to a deep theological discussion on the question of whether or not encyclicals are infallible pronouncements, which was consistent with all my other reading on the subject. You see, I researched the subject thoroughly, so Jesuit priests wouldn’t spank me.

At this point, Günther Simmermacher, the editor of Southern Cross, a Catholic news weekly, chipped in. “You,” he wrote, “can’t complain when you are being corrected that NONE of it carries the weight of infallible dogma.”

That, of course, called for a correction. It overstated the case in the other direction. Neither Egan and Tungay, nor indeed the Catholic Church, says that none of the contents of encyclicals carries the weight of infallible dogma.

When I pointed this out to Simmermacher, he rephrased his claim: “Nothing in the encyclical is infallible by virtue of its inclusion therein. It really isn’t that complicated. Your statement was incorrect the first time around and it is incorrect with the qualifier ‘may contain’. Unless you can identify which passages ‘carry the weight of infallible dogma’.”

So my statement was not incorrect, then. As those readers with a logical bent would agree, this leaves open the possibility that passages in encyclicals could be infallible by virtue of some fact other than their inclusion therein. This is indeed so. Examples are statements of divine revelation, or when a pope has made a prior ex cathedra pronouncement of infallible dogma. Therefore, my statement that encyclicals “may contain” infallible dogma, is accurate. Even so, I explained the exact status of this particular one in the Pope’s own words.

Simmermacher asked for examples of infallible dogma in Laudato Si’, and I was happy to oblige. Section 241 concerns Mary, the mother of Jesus: “Completely transfigured, she now lives with Jesus…” This appears to be a statement of infallible dogma, by virtue of the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus pronounced by Pius XII in 1950 concerning the Assumption of Mary. And in section 236: “God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures.” This seems to refer to the doctrine of transubstantiation, a part of the fides ecclesiastica, or “truths of the church”, to which infallibility extends.

Neither of these passages are infallible by virtue of being part of the encyclical, but both are contained in it. Therefore, not only are my statements about infallible dogma in encyclicals correct, but this encyclical in particular appears to provide actual examples.

Far more importantly than an obscure point of theology, I claimed that the Pope’s grasp of basic economics is in error. Such a fundamental mistake casts doubt on the rest of his pronouncements.

Egan and Tungay evade the central criticism by misrepresenting what the Pope said. They paraphrased it as, “consumers act as if resources were unlimited”. But the Pope did not say “consumers”, and he did not say “act as if”. He said “economists, financiers and experts in technology” find the idea of “infinite or unlimited growth” attractive, based on “the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods”.

Find it attractive? Who wouldn’t. Believe the lie? Of course not. And Egan and Tungay repeat the Pope’s own economic error when they say there is nothing other than government intervention that stops people from over-consuming, since there is no “internal mechanism to regulate the market”.

Consumers know very well that resources are limited. They have limited incomes, household budget limits, credit limits, bank withdrawal limits, and limits on their time, all of which exist because the market strictly enforces resource limits.

The reason is that the price mechanism regulates the market, and it is a very powerful internal regulator indeed. This is why we haven’t run out of resources, despite half a century of alarming predictions by the very environmentalists to whom the pope appeals for authority. Remember when economist Julian Simon bet environmentalist Paul Ehrlich about declining resources? That was a bet of reason against faith. Remember when Peak Oil was a common belief? Now we have too much of the stuff. So much for a crisis.

Things took a turn for the comical when the two Catholics tried to illustrate the lack of “internal mechanism regulating the market” by referring to Gareth Hardin’s seminal 1968 article in Science, entitled The Tragedy of the Commons. That’s funny, because the entire point of that paper was to illustrate what happens in the absence of a market and private property rights.

Such basic economic errors cast doubt on the validity of the Church’s “social teaching”.

Note that I never argue against “taking ecologically friendly steps”, or claim that there are no environmental challenges to address. That was not my purpose, nor was it my purpose to argue against Catholicism in particular or religion in general (as much as I oppose the idea).

I argued against the hyperbolic catastrophism of the Pope’s rhetoric. The Earth Charter, he wrote, asks us to “leave behind a period of self-destruction and make a new start, but we have not as yet developed a universal awareness needed to achieve this”.

Not only does this sound suspiciously Buddhist coming from a Catholic pope, but also it is in direct conflict with all observable data. Self-destruction? More people live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than ever before. And as they do, they demonstrate a growing concern for the people and environment around them. As a result of this awareness, and our scientific and technical progress, nature is rebounding in many places. In fact, on average, the planet is getting greener worldwide.

Yet Egan and Tungay uncritically repeat that “we are in a crisis”, which is at best a simplistic over-generalisation, and a debatable statement of belief. Even if we are, that we require some authority to intervene and ”enforce compliance” to limits upon our behaviour is a political, not a scientific, statement. It highly questionable in general, and is particularly objectionable coming from a religious leader addressing those outside that religion.

Egan and Tungay strike a pre-emptive rhetorical blow by raising the ad hominem fallacy: “When attempts are made to explain or clarify what is really meant by a claim, the retort is usually a dismissive, ‘You would say that!’ Reducing a debate to the ad hominem is unhelpful.”

Without apparent irony, they go on to say: “Long before Laudato Si’ … we have looked at the environment, weighed the research presuppositions and evidence, examined the sources (not least who has funded what research and the presuppositions funders have had).”

Who funded what science can surely be relevant when seeking motives for why research might be deficient. This is true whether the funders are corporations, government or green groups. However, this is inherently an ad hominem argument, of the ‘You would say that!’ kind.

The pair incorrectly claim that I portray the market as some “wise grandmother”. That’s amusing, coming from defenders of a centralised global organisation headed by someone literally titled ‘papa’. It is also the exact opposite of the definition of the market.

The market is not a person, a thing, a group, an organisation, or an authority. It is not singular. The market is an abstraction, consisting of the individual choices of all of us. A free market rejects central planning, because nobody can fairly second-guess what’s good for everyone else. It opposes enforcing compliance by some wise grandfather, like the pope, Alan Greenspan, Mao Zedong, Warren Buffett, Joe Stalin, or James Lovelock. It recognises that all humans (even Lovelock) are fallible, and everyone has different individual priorities for their own lives.

Egan and Tungay claim that the market only works “for those who can afford it”, but that is also incorrect. History shows that economic freedom and prosperity is highly correlated. In fact, halving world poverty from 1990 levels was a goal the UN had hoped would be reached by this year, but it was achieved five years early, in 2010. Free markets had a lot more to do with that than the Catholic Church.

In defence of the Pope’s environmental alarmism, they cite notions like “global carrying capacity”, which are arbitrary, static numbers chosen by environmentalists for rhetorical purposes. Despite our impact on the environment and our real ecological problems, human population growth and economic growth both are surprisingly sustainable. Surprising, that is, if you believe environmental predictions of catastrophe, not if you understand the price mechanism that regulates our use of scarce natural resources.

Their half-hearted defence of capitalism (“let us not treat these observations as anti-capitalist rants”) is also disingenuous. Pope Francis is explicitly anti-capitalist in this encyclical: “The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order’.”

Sorry, but without the supremacy of private property, you cannot claim to be capitalist. It is the core principle of the individual liberty that free market capitalists advocate. Defending the Pope by saying he is capitalist is an explicit rejection of his own teaching.

Environmentalists were a minority in the comment section. They, like the priests, missed the fact that I did not express scepticism about specific ecological challenges, but rejected the catastrophism and religious zeal of the environmental movement. One person took me to task over my description of The Limits to Growth, the 1972 book of doom by the Club of Rome, on which the Earth Charter (which the Pope endorsed) is based. I said it predicted imminent global collapse. They said the book did no such thing.

The phrase is a description, not a quotation, and I am not the only one to describe the book in this way. Researchers who recently claimed to have vindicated The Limits to Growth used the exact same words. If those words are good enough for The Guardian, they are good enough for me.

As for how correct the description is, the charts from the book show a dramatic collapse in the fortunes of humanity, with catastrophic die-offs and an economic crash centred around 2030.


Photo: The apocalypse that awaits us, according to the writers of the Earth Charter, which Pope Francis endorsed.

That paper that supposedly vindicates this catastrophic prediction does no such thing. It only shows that we’re still following the anticipated growth path. It does not show that the prediction of catastrophic collapse was correct. The only indicator that shows any sign of slowing down is the death rate, as it approaches zero. In fact, the researchers now speculate that the meltdown may be delayed by a couple of decades, because of advances in energy production technology. Sure, sure. The end of the world always gets postponed when it doesn’t arrive as predicted.

The paper stumbles across confounding factors when claiming that the 2008 economic crisis may be a harbinger of the collapse to come. It certainly could be, and I expect a lot more economic pain in the coming decades. However, this does not prove the unsustainability of humanity’s use of scarce resources, as the Club of Rome posited. It could equally well vindicate free-market economists who claim a collapse is inevitable because of the weight of welfare bureaucracy, or because uncontrolled monetary expansion has caused a misallocation of capital and unsustainable private, corporate and sovereign debt levels. Guess whose side I’m on.

With a full priestly rebuttal and over 400 comments, the list of misrepresentations, evasive excuses and outright errors written in response to my eco-pope column is long. The Internet might run out of space if I carry on, but I couldn’t let the final image invoked by the Jesuits slide. They remind us of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, a vigilante cop, holding the muzzle of his famous .44 Magnum against some presumed criminal’s head. “Do you feel lucky, punk?” they ask, rhetorically.

Well, sure I do. Feel lucky, that is. Humanity has done pretty well so far. By almost all indicators, lives improve where economic freedom reigns, even for the poor. I’ll stick with that trend, thank you very much, rather than “taking a massive chance with the future”.

And I certainly do not intend to make such a choice with a gun to my head. Nature does not wield guns; people do. And when special interest groups, be they greens, priests, bankers or taxi drivers, ask that governments take action, you get a gun to your head. To test this, try not paying a fine or taxes and then resisting arrest. In some cases, the people asking for laws in their favour are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they resort to vigilante justice, just like Eastwood. But his character was called ‘dirty’ for a reason.

When high-minded idealists seek to impose their beliefs upon others, and justify this with mistaken economics and fearful prophecies of doom, that is when things get dangerous. That is when those who value their freedom ought to take a stand. DM



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