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Brian Williams returns

Although a big part of me wanted former NBC news anchor Brian Williams to be fired after he embellished and even downright fabricated stories about his reporting in the field, I can accept his just announced return to a new and different job at MSNBC.
Lester Holt has held the NBC anchor chair since Williams was suspended without pay for six months, and it would have been unforgivable on two counts—at least among journalists—to give Williams his old job back.


One, Holt has done a fine job. He's more Walter Cronkite, while Williams is more Johnny Carson. Two, even though Williams lied mostly on talk shows, not from the anchor chair, he shouldn't get to lead a news organization. Not even if viewers—and therefore advertisers—don't care. Surely corporate news executives retain, or feel compelled to exhibit, at least that much decency.


But given that Williams has apologized and been humiliated for his sins, I don't think it's necessary that he be drummed entirely and permanently out of the news business. I must say, however, that during my years in the business I've seen non-celebrity journalists drummed out for less.


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A Tale of Two Churches

Understanding last night's massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, where a young white man entered one of the city's oldest historically black churches and shot to death nine people who were participating in a prayer meeting, requires understanding the intersection of race and religion in the American South, and that is no small matter.

I know this difficulty firsthand: about two years ago I moved with my family to Tallahassee, Florida, and in the past few months we stopped attending the large, predominantly white parish on the north side of town where we enrolled as parishioners when we first moved in, and are now going instead to a small parish on the city's south side where the congregation at the English-language Mass is so predominantly black that ours is often the only white family in attendance.

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'Laudato Si' ': Response Roundup

Here’s a mid-day roundup of response to Laudato Si’ from around the web (if you've already made sure to read Anthony Annett, David Cloutier, Michael Peppard, and Massimo Faggioli on Commonweal). Start with E. J. Dionne Jr., who, in a column posted to our website, says anyone who claims Francis is inventing radical new doctrines

will have to reckon with the care he takes in paying homage to his predecessors, particularly Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. He cites them over and over on the limits of markets and the urgency of environmental stewardship. Laudato Si’ is thus thoroughly consistent with over a century of modern Catholic social teaching, and if it breaks new ground, it does so within the context of a long tradition -- going back to St. Francis himself.

Similarly, Emma Green in The Atlantic:

Historical references  …  are peppered throughout the document, and they serve as an important reminder to an often-giddy media that loves to write about today’s revolutionary pope: In the Church, precedent is everything. Francis’s argument is deeply grounded in Catholic teachings dating back to the late-19th-century writings of Pope Leo XIII (and before that, Jesus). … This is far from the Church’s first foray into environmentalism. “I always remind my environmental friends that St. Francis was ours before he was theirs,” said John Carr, a professor at Georgetown and former staffer at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This didn’t begin with Earth Day or Al Gore. It began with Genesis.”

R. R. Reno at First Things:

In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era. … Francis has penned a cri de coeur, a dark reflection on the systemic evils of modernity. Like the prophet Ezekiel, Pope Francis sees perversion and decadence in a global system dominated by those who consume and destroy. The only answer is repentance, “deep change,” and a “bold cultural revolution.” If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity.

But Josiah Neely, also at First Things, calls Laudato Si' “a more measured affair” that deserves fuller reading: “[T]here seems to be a fairly large disconnect between the criticism of (much of it made prior to the release of the actual text) and the encyclical itself.”

Francis X. Rocca in the Wall St. Journal zeroes in on “passionate language likely to prove highly divisive” and characterizes Laudato Si’ as abroad and uncompromising indictment of the global market economy.” 

What, George Weigel asks, does Francis write in the encyclical?

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Pope Francis's Earthquake

Laudato Si' offers two long-lasting gifts to the church. Through the body of the text, Francis first exhorts us to examine and renew our commitments to God, one another, and "our common home" on earth through an "integral ecology." But the footnotes of the text tell another story, related but distinct from the first. Francis has shown how the Pope can honor and foster collegiality and synodality among the world's Christian leaders.

Those aren't household words, but the concepts are simple enough. Collegiality refers to "the Pope governing the Church in collaboration with the bishops of the local Churches, respecting their proper autonomy."  Synodality is "the practical expression of the participation of the local Church in the governance of the universal Church, through deliberative bodies."

The extent to which Francis manifests these concepts in Laudato Si' is breathtaking. He cites seventeen different bishops' conferences or regional meetings (some of them more than once) from six continents. In order of appearance, they represent: Southern Africa, the Philippines, Bolivia, Germany, Argentina, the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, New Zealand, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, Portugal, Mexico, and Australia.

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The Theological Heart of Laudato Si'

The overwhelming immediate importance of Laudato Si’ is to call both church and world to respond to the “urgent challenge to protect our common home” (13). As Tony Annett has already ably pointed out, Francis is not mincing words here, even if he is careful. Above all, the encyclical suggests we are home-wreckers, yet we also have a chance for a deeper conversion from our “internal deserts,” (217; one of the many quotes from Benedict XVI) to a more joyful and more challenging way of life: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom” (205). Such a response, the pope makes clear in chapters 1 & 5, requires international cooperation because of the nature of the problems. That Francis chose to highlight the atmosphere, water, and the diversity of species is telling – these are all problems where global cooperation is absolutely necessary. Your car, lawn, and hardwood flooring may very well be implicated, but “nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today” (219).

Chapters 1 & 5 contain a lot of the material that will grab attention in the larger media. But the heart of the encyclical theologically and spiritually is chapters 2-4. It is important to highlight that this document is firmly and clearly theological. If we contemplate the broad structure of these chapters, we can see an elegant scheme of creation, fall, and redemption. This fundamental pattern of the Christian narrative is so easy to forget – to sing “Canticle of the Sun” while forgetting the cross, or to offer the cross as an escape hatch from creation, rather than a tree of life that makes way for the Spirit’s renewal of creation. To read the encyclical as a whole – not always easy given its length and its incredible detail! – is to be reminded of this basic pattern: God’s gift, our human sinfulness, and the everlasting covenant sealed by the Spirit, promising a vision of renewal to the ends of the earth.

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Ten Quick Takeaways from Laudato Si'

1.       The encyclical strongly affirms the climate science and the gravity of the environmental challenge. The pope states clearly that the recent global warming is due to greenhouse gas emissions, caused mainly by human activity. He delves into the science, and even discusses risk factors like ocean acidification, the loss of tropical forests, and the release of methane from melting ice sheets. He calls climate change one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Overall, the discussion of the environmental threats is deep and wide-ranging, with discussions of water, ecosystems, and biodiversity. In places, the diagnosis is characteristically blunt: “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”.

2.       In the face of this crisis, the pope lambasts those who fail to act. Noting the failure to find solutions to the environmental crisis, Pope Francis pins the blame on obstruction by vested interests, general indifference, and blind confidence in technical solutions. He is particularly critical of people who possess more resources or more political and economic power, who seem concerned with “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”. He notes that special interests trump the common good and manipulate information so that their own plans will not be affected. He criticizes a habit of evasiveness designed to feed “self-destructive vices”.

3.       The encyclical calls for a dramatic reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, and for rich countries to help poorer countries on this path. It notes that fossil fuels need to be “progressively and quickly replaced” with renewables. This requires action at the global, national, and local levels. Given the complete failure of governments to reach agreement almost a quarter century after the Rio Earth summit in 1992, the pope notes that “we believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions”. Noting that the poor pay the price for climate change—and indeed, that an “ecological debt” exists between north and south—Pope Francis also calls for the richer countries, who have enjoyed prosperity at the cost of polluting the planet, to help the poorer countries overcome climate change and move to lower-carbon energy systems.

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Laudato Si' Press Conference: Twitter Roundup

This morning Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' was released and presented by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council “Justice and Peace.” Alongside Turkson were other presenters: Metropolitan John Zizioulas, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church; Professor John Schellnhuber, founder and director of the Institute for Climate Impact in Potsdam; Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services and former dean of the Mendoza College of Business of the University of Notre Dame; and Valeria Martano, a teacher from Rome. The following is some selected Twitter coverage of the event as it happened.

The conference begins:

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Massimo Faggioli on 'Laudato si''

Just posted to the homepage, Massimo Faggioli's reading of Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato si'.

In some ways, Laudato si’ picks up where Evangelii gaudium left off. Francis decries the “culture of waste,” abuses of technology, and profit-mad globalization. As expected, he affirms the scientific consensus on global warming. In order to better listen to what the earth is telling us, Francis writes, the church must advocate for the poor—the first to suffer the effects of climate change. The pope rejects “demographic solutions” (like Paul VI in Humanae vitae, but Francis does not quote that text here), such as population control. He criticizes wealthy nations that leverage the needs of poorer ones for political control. Particularly strong is the pope’s analysis of the relations between politics, the global economy, and information, which is manipulated by business interests. Francis laments that in the debate on the environment, the role of politics is largely absent.

The Gospel calls the church to speak out against whatever threatens the dignity of every human being, including inequality. In this sense, the ecology of Francis is fully prolife: respect for people and respect for other creatures are closely connected. The strongest section of Laudato Si’ is its critique of technocracy (a skepticism shared by Benedict XVI). The “technocratic paradigm” is reflected in our failure to grasp the fact that many of the earth’s resources are finite. For Francis, technology is never neutral—it can be used to ill effect. The market itself will not correct this on its own. Therefore the church itself should offer a unifying voice in order to help us break free from the technocratic paradigm. To that end, Francis urges us to rethink our consumerist excesses: a good relationship with creation presupposes a good relationship with the Creator.

Ecology, according to Francis, always includes care for the poor, for the marginalized, and for nature. It also means protecting culture: the word “inculturation” does not appear in the text, but for Laudato si’ true ecology must be inculturated, not imported with a colonialist mindset. Authentic “human ecology” does not ignore sexual differences: accepting masculinity and femininity is a way of respecting creation, the pope writes, rather than imposing our will on it. In this Catholic presentation of ecology, society has a role in defending the common good, as do nations and governments.

Read the rest right here.

Now on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First, in his weekly letter from Rome, Robert Mickens names Cardinal Pell "the most prominent of the church’s self-described climate change skeptics," and wonders if he--or any Catholic--can "simply ignore the new encyclical or the parts they don’t like":

Many have done so before, not least concerning Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Of course, the cardinal and many others in the hierarchy call such people 'dissenters.'

Plus, a look at which bishops elected by their national episcopal conferences will attend October's Synod on the Family, and a look into the truth behind Francis's (not yet) "tribunal" to try bishops who abuse their office. Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here.

Next, Benjamin F. Carlson shows that China's growing urbanization means rural villages are under threat of extinction, and that may mean the end of "undergound" Roman Catholicism as well:

The countryside is not only the bedrock of Chinese traditions, but also the bedrock of Chinese Catholicism. The majority of China’s one hundred and thirteen dioceses were founded around small, provincial cities.... it is not surprising that China under Xi Jinping has shown little interest in improving ties with the Vatican.

Read all of "New Tests for 'Old' China's Catholics" here.

Also, in advance of the encyclical, we've just posted a new Reading List featuring Commonweal articles, editorials, and essays on the environment and climate change.

Whose Legacy?

The word "legacy" appears frequently in stories about the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). And almost without exception it refers to President Obama's legacy.

The defeat last week in the House of a piece of the agreement has been taken as a major defeat for the president, and what's more, at the hands of his fellow Democrats. No doubt, the whole thing will circle around again, and those now on record against the agreement can then vote, yes.

But why would it be singled out as Obama's legacy. We could say that the legacy of NAFTA lives on in the lives of those who lost or never found good jobs over the last two decades, and not in the life of Bill Clinton who signed it. Presumably the major legacy of TPP will be more disruption in job formation, both here and in the "trans-Pacific." Labor and environmental regulations are weak and the ability of a few to make lots of money is strong. Why would any president want that for his legacy?

Joseph A. Komonchak Receives the John Courtney Murray Award

Joseph A. Komonchak has received the John Courtney Murray Award from the Catholic Theological Society of America, the organization’s highest honor. Regular readers of Commonweal are no doubt familiar with Joe’s work: He is not only a longtime friend and contributor, but also (of course) a leading scholar on Vatican II, the editor of a five-volume history of the council, and the author of more than one hundred and fifty articles. The award was presented June 13 at the CTSA convention in Milwaukee. Please join us in congratulating Joe on winning such well-deserved recognition from his fellow theologians.

Was the encylical leak a violation of journalistic ethics?

Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, widely seen as skeptical of the Francis papacy, has published an Italian draft of the pope's encyclical on the environment, which is scheduled to be released Thursday morning. One Vatican official called the leak "a heinous act." As word of the leak spread, my Twitter feed blew up with complaints that Magister had violated journalistic ethics by writing about an "embargoed" document. And Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, seemed to agree. Emphasizing that Magister's copy is not the final draft, Lombardi suggested that L'Espresso's decision to run with it was unprofessional. "The rules of the embargo remain in place," Lombardi said in a statement.

Magister got his copy from an unofficial source (obviously curial) who imposed no restrictions on its use. An embargo obtains when a source gives a journalist (or journalists) information with the understanding that it cannot be reported until a certain time. The Vatican, for example, is allowing accredited journalists to read the encyclical two hours before it is officially released. The embargo doesn't begin until Thursday morning, when reporters receive their advance copies. If one of them publishes on that text before at 11 a.m. local time, then the embargo will have been broken.

So Lombardi is mistaken. Magister didn't commit any journalistic sin. He got a legitimate scoop, decided making the Holy See Press Office crazy was a price worth paying, and wrote it up. What's unfortunate about the leak is that it will make the Holy See more wary of providing advance warning of the publishing dates of papal documents.

Archbishop Nienstedt resigns. (UPDATED)

This morning, ten days after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was criminally charged with child endangerment and five days after Pope Francis announced a new tribunal for bishops who mishandle cases of abusive priests, the Vatican announced the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt, along with one of his auxiliary bishops, Lee Piché. Prosecutors charged the archdiocese with failing to protect the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer, the now laicized priest who is serving a five-year sentence for molesting children and possessing child pornography. (The criminal complaint also named several other accused priests whose cases were mishandled by the archdiocese.) Nienstedt's replacement has not yet been named. In the meantime, Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda as apostolic administrator (not the Twin Cities' remaining auxiliary bishop, Andrew Cozzens)--an unusual move, given the fact that Hebda is already the coadjutor archbishop of Newark, where he lives.

Nienstedt has been buffeted by calls for his resignation ever since his former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, provided Minnesota Public Radio with troubling information about the archdiocese's responses to cases of accused priests. As recently as last July, Nienstedt pledged not to resign. "The resignations were both prudent and necessary," Haselberger told me. "The Holy See has acted wisely by appointing an apostolic administrator."

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How to Worry about Selfie Sticks

There is a passage by Iris Murdoch from The Sovereignty of Good where she describes joy in teaching herself the Russian language. “Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality,” she writes. “Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Because the rules of Russian grammar are difficult to master, learning it pushes Murdoch’s full attention into a humble posture. She’s describing devotional attention, in other words, and its devotional character is what’s most true about it because it means one’s body and mind confront something you’re not meant to just use, but see. 

Matthew Crawford uses Murdoch’s lines in both his books, Shopclass as Soul Craft, and his latest The World Beyond Your Head (reviewed here in Commonweal) where he takes up the issue of “distraction.” His broader argument hinges on this idea that how we train—or don’t train—our focus, even more than what we set it on, shapes whether or not we become the kind of people who can make free and meaningful choices. It’s a philosophical stab at a moral, social, and economic problem: How can we be more than consumers, but free individuals? We can’t, really, if we hand over our focus to whoever and whatever wants it.

Attention, reality, consumerism—worrying about these things now means thinking about digital technology, especially since a lot of us carry a small machine seductively designed for infinite distraction in our pocket. Rand Richards Cooper recently wrote on how Smartphones allow us to check out from where we’re standing. He writes, “Technology is a majestic human story, and the benefits we’ve gotten from farming out our tasks to machines are incalculable. But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?”

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11th day in Asia: Greetings from Pune, India

I arrived in Asia on June 3rd for Lucas Chan’s memorial and burial.   I left Hong Kong on the 10th, saying farewell to that city, but not to my friend who was born and raised there. 

I arrived in Pune (the Indian spelling of what the English called Poona until Indian Independence in 1947) by the invitation of one other of my doctoral students, John Karuvelil, S.J.

Pune is the nation’s center of higher education, commonly referred to as, the “Oxford of the East.”  

In 1942 the Jesuits opened its residence, De Nobili College (DNC), for the formation of Jesuit scholastics.  By 1955, the Pontifical Athenaeum for diocesan seminarians came to the campus where the DNC was, and became the school for all students living on the campus.  By 1972 the Athenaeum was renamed Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth.

Today over 850 students are doing graduate degree programs in theology and philosophy at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth. Among its students, over 70 are women, and that group is growing.  Moreover,160 Jesuit students, living with 30 other Jesuit faculty and administrators under one roof, make De Nobili College the largest Jesuit community in the world.

I live here with my host John Karuvelil, who is, I think, a perfect representative of what moral theologians in India are doing today.

He finished his dissertation in 2010, on how the Catholic social justice tradition could positively influence the enormous Indian health care industry.  Karuvelil emphasized how the tradition and its teachings on the common good, option for the poor, subsidiarity, equity, participation, and solidarity, could guide the enormously developing genetics industry in India a segment of its ever-growing pharmaceutical industry.

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Bishop Sanchez Sorondo responds to criticism

I recently posted a response by Margaret Archer—president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences—to an attack essay by Stefano Gennarini in First Things. This essay accused the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, of openly defying the position of the Holy See on “reproductive health” and “reproductive rights.”

The good bishop has now published his own response, and it is detailed, thoughtful, and gracious. I invite you to read it without my editorial comment.

But I want to step back and think about this for a minute. We had an event at the Vatican that focused mainly on climate change and how it hurts the world’s poorest people. But instead of engaging on this vitally important point, agitators like Gennarini turn the debate back to abortion. And pretty soon, that’s all everyone is talking about. He has forced an upstanding Catholic bishop to go on record stating that he is in fact opposed to abortion!

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a tried-and-true tactic. But we shouldn’t play into their hands.  We need to put these people back on the defensive. The pro-life position can never be limited to abortion. It must encompass all forms of the “throwaway” culture that Pope Francis mentions so often, all ways that life and dignity are degraded and cheapened. It must encompass the issues that the Pontifical Academy is passionate about, including human trafficking and modern forms of slavery. And it certainly must encompass the need to reduce carbon emissions, given that our “business as usual” trajectory is going to prove catastrophic for human life and health, especially for the poor and the unborn.

So let the response to such provocation be: “I oppose abortion, but do you oppose decarbonization”? I would like to hear an answer to that question from Stefano Gennarini, George Weigel, Robbie George, Raymond Arroyo, Bill Donohue and all others who seek to downplay and dismiss these concerns.

I would argue that, from a moral perspective, opposing decarbonization is not that different from supporting legalized abortion—you might not be the acting moral agent, but you are still complicit in the structures of sin. Putting it another way, it might not be formal cooperation with evil, but it is certainly material.

And sin is the right word. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been saying this for a long time—degrading the earth, including by changing the climate, is a sin. Pope Francis has used similar words in the past. And given the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s representative at the launch of the encyclical next week, what’s the betting that this theme will feature prominently?

Nature Notes, June 12, 2015

June 12, 2015: Fireflies out and about. I thought this would be the earliest date ever, but I see May 30, 2011 wins the early bird award. Of course, I wasn't here in nature on May 30 this year so.... The fireflies are not yet as profuse as they were in 2014, but will certainly increase as we approach July 4, when they put on their great firework show.

In the meantime mountain laurel are bursting blossoms (looks like a wedding bower). Everything green is profuse: ferns, raspberry bushes, violets, (even the irises flowered this year), alium look great, lady's mantel, blood root, verbena, chives, oregano and who knows what else.

The Fordham Tick Index is at 8 (out of 10). I have been attacked by only one so far. It had not yet bitten, so I spared it (Will Francis have anything to say about unloved creatures like ticks, mosquitos, and chiggers. We'll see next week.).

I speculate that a very cold and long winter followed by a wet June has produced the abundant green world, though it seems that may have delayed planting on the farm at the bottom of the hill. Late corn!

2014 Report, June 27.     2012 Report, June 22.      2011 Report May 30.

To Skip a 'Mockingbird'

It can be trying these days for those not among the legions who hold Harper Lee in such high esteem. That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve her acclaim, resurgent in anticipation of a newly discovered and soon-to-be-published work. It’s just that I have nothing to base an opinion on. I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird.

It feels good to confess that. I’ve been carrying the secret around for years, since not having been assigned to read it in high school, and then not reading it on my own during college. Of course, the longer things went, the harder it got – job, marriage, family, you know – each passing year making it less likely I’d start a book everyone else seemed to have long since finished, and in adolescence at that. If I’d picked it up in 1999 when it was named “Best Novel of the Century” by Library Journal, it would have looked as if I was just latching on to an annoying retro trend. And now? The Guardian refers to it as a children’s book, so, not likely. At best it would invite well-meaning but embarrassed (and embarrassing) concern; at worst, ridicule. I’ve already been down that road, accosted at my previous job by a co-worker who saw me with a copy of The Great Gatsby (a novel I’ve read many times over, I just want to point out). “What are you,” he asked incredulously, “in high school?

Also, I have not seen the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, though that seems the more venial of the sins.

I can’t really hide the truth anymore. It’s too hard when a friend makes thoughtful, earnest reference to Atticus Finch, or an old classmate expresses tender, unfading fondness for Boo Radley, or a neighbor brings their son/daughter Scout to a birthday party (“Guess who he/she’s named after! Go ahead! Guess!”). I know the names of the characters; I know their general relationships to one another. I know the main parts of the plot. But do I know the book? No. Because I have never read it.

Though if I didn’t know any better, there seem to be forces at work to get me to.

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Discussing the encyclical

"The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity."  Those words opened the Second Vatican Council’s evaluation of modern warfare.   They might well be applied to the question that Pope Francis is addressing in the forthcoming encyclical on climate change, the environment, and sustainable development. 

The U.S. bishops quoted those words at the beginning of “The Challenge of Peace,” their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace in an age of nuclear weapons.  Like that pastoral letter, the Pope’s new encyclical is sure to raise once again abiding questions about the relationship of religious authority to disputed matters of fact and public policy.  Once again thoughtful Catholics will have to respond to standard accusations that the Pope has no business speaking about global warming, just as the bishops were said to have no business speaking about nuclear strategy.  And once again Catholics sympathetic to the thrust of the document will have to resist the temptation simply to bash those less convinced with hierarchical authority and papal proof-texting. 

So it might be wise to look back to that earlier letter and consider what was one of the most careful treatments of those questions in any recent episcopal document. 

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Why Climate Change is Not a Prudential Judgment

A recent survey indicated that Americans divide into three groups on the issue of climate change: believers, sympathizers, and skeptics. About half of Americans are “believers,” saying that the climate is warming and that this warming is caused by human activity, and another quarter are “sympathizers” who are less sure about causes, but who agree the climate in warming. The final quarter are “skeptics,” who deny that there really is any warming.

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

Francis’s encyclical has already brought charges from prominent Catholics that the Church should stay out of the science. It is important to recognize that the encyclical itself will surely be primarily concerned with faith and morals. The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences has already issued a detailed statement which goes into far more detail on the science.

When the encyclical drops, we will hear plenty of commentary on prudential judgment; it is important to clarify what this term means. It is not properly applied to scientific knowledge of the sort that show climate change. Scientific knowledge cannot by definition be a matter of prudential judgment, since it is about “what is” and not about “what is to be done.”

Aquinas clearly states prudence, while an “intellectual virtue,” is nevertheless to be distinguished from “wisdom, knowledge, and understanding” which are about “necessary things.” By contrast, “art” and “prudence” are about “contingent things.” Art is about “things made” and prudence about “things done” (ST II-II, 47, 5). Prudence cannot be exercised without “wisdom, knowledge, and understanding,” but these latter qualities are not themselves prudence.

Thus, the proper area for debate about prudential judgment is what is to be done in the face of scientific data, not what the scientific data is. This differentiation will be especially important, because I expect the encyclical will follow the PAS statement in suggesting that overwhelming evidence suggests present climate change and future disruptions, while also noting that (to directly quote the PAS report) “The climate system is highly complex and could respond in surprising ways that have not yet been anticipated by models that project the future climate. While the actual warming could be smaller than expected, it could also be much larger, causing even more dire disruptions than those that have been identified. Prudence and justice demand that we take note of these risks and act upon them in time, for the sake of all humanity, but especially for the weak, the vulnerable, and the future generations whose wellbeing depends on our generation’s actions.”

These sorts of quotes will offer a tempting opportunity for climate “skeptics” to proof-text the document in favor of uncertainty – and in doing so, likely appeal to “prudential judgment.” But the quote very correctly indicates that the uncertainty of the science actually heightens the urgency of acting. A prudent person, faced with a large amount of information which tends one way but includes inevitable uncertainty, will not guide her future actions by placing all of her bets on the shakiest portions of the evidence and the potential-but-unknown “surprises” that might lead to less damage than seems likely. This is the very definition of imprudence. But notice this isn’t a judgment about the scientific data itself; it’s a judgment about what the scientific data would support as prudent action.

The recently-debated question of appropriate Catholic cooperation with the United Nations is a clear instance of a prudential judgment. To my mind, given that global cooperation is necessary for any reasonable action, it would seem imprudent not to cooperate with the one body that might make progress possible. One would need very weighty reasons to reject such cooperation, as well as a serious argument that such cooperation involved formal or proximate material cooperation. Nevertheless, the pope’s encyclical will reasonably prompt such a debate, even as it undoubtedly makes important prudential judgments explicit. That is the debate which should proceed from the encyclical, because it is a debate that has already advanced to the question, “what should we do about climate change?” Because the question of whether there is human-caused climate change isn’t about prudential reasoning at all. Rather, the knowledge and wisdom that we have – even with the inevitable uncertainty – leads to clarity that the least prudent course of acting is doing nothing.