I had expected more from people who call themselves not only conservatives, but conservative Catholics. These are people with whom I would expect to be in agreement, but as several recent posts have revealed, the frequency with which that expectation is frustrated the source of a great deal of irritation to me.
The most recent example comes from the hubbub surrounding an encyclical which the Pope has not yet even released [a draft has been leaked as I write this, but even that was not available when I started this post], but which is said to deal with our responsibility to look after the environment. That, in itself, is not very new; it was Adam's first job, as described in Genesis 2:15.
Unfortunately, most of these "conservative Catholics" seem to be infested by a form of Gnosticism (as are so many in today's society). Gnostics thought that matter, including the body, was at best of no importance, and at worst somewhat evil, as it functions (in their opinions) as a prison for spirits. Some Gnostics concluded that even marital intercourse is wrong, since it leads to more spirits being trapped in matter (i.e., children); others concluded that because the body is of no importance, no sex act performed by the body could possibly be sinful.
Something of these attitudes was revived during the Enlightenment, particularly in the dualism of René Descartes. A hint of the confusion caused by this can be found in modern science fiction, which on the one hand will happily deny that there is such a thing as a soul -- only the body is important -- and then in the next episode the mind or "essence" of a character is uploaded into a computer or downloaded into another body -- the body is of no importance.
The aroma of Gnosticism is also particularly to be found in any modern discussion of nature and/or nonhuman animals and plants. Like a drunk wandering home late at night, most people end up in either the ditch on the right or the ditch on the left. The ditch on the left is the idea that animals and plants are of equal if not superior worth compared to a human. These are the people who will protest in favor of abortion but against the cutting down of a 300 year old oak. The ditch on the right is that the only value nature has is as raw material for industry. Ironically, both sides end up enthroning Industry as a god, the only difference being whether they regard it as a good god or an evil god. (This, by the way, is one key difference between modern pagans and ancient pagans: ancient pagans new that nature could kill them if they weren't careful, whereas modern pagans are afraid that if we are not careful, we might destroy nature.)
A particularly common "defense" given in anticipation of this encyclical is that the Pope is only infallible when talking about Faith and Morals (and even then only under specific circumstances), with the very strong implication that anything else can simply be ignored. The error is in the implication.
Statements may be classified by their credibility.
- Infallible statements are, of course, the gold standard. The problem is that whenever an infallible statement is explained, or paraphrased, or applied, the infallibility does not transfer to the explanation, paraphrase, or application. Since explanations and applications are necessary for any practical use to be made of these statements, infallible statements are not enough.
- Some statements are not infallible, but they are thoroughly trustworthy. The theory of quantum mechanics is a particularly strong example, because (a) it is something no sane person would really want to believe, so it has been thoroughly tested in hopes of debunking it, and (b) none of these experiments have shown quantum mechanics to be wrong. Honestly, though, almost all "facts" fall into this category: "The earth is round," "China is a real place," "Rats do not spontaneously generate from old rags," "Millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust," etc.
- Some statements may not be as certain as those discussed above, but they are still worthy of the benefit of the doubt. Advice from your doctor falls into this category; you can get a second opinion, but you should not simply disregard what your doctor says. Likewise with weather forecasts: they are often wrong, but it is foolish to ignore the forecast of a major storm.
- Some statements have neutral credibility. If I say, "Baylor will win the Big 12 football championship in 2015," a proper response would be, "Maybe; we'll see."
- Finally, there are statements which should be met with varying degrees of suspicion, but which should be regarded as either most likely to be false or to be so cunningly deceptive that the only safe thing is to ignore them entirely.
It may well be true -- it is almost certainly true -- that the bulk of what is in the upcoming encyclical does not belong in the first category, infallible statements. That is true of any encyclical, really. When St. John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, "Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform," this evaluation of the prison system is not infallible. When Popes have written encyclicals condemning Socialism, the moral principles in them may be infallible, but the application to self-described Socialist leaders, parties, or nations is not infallible. However, a Catholic aiming to cultivate the proper virtue of docility will still regard them as trustworthy, or at least worthy of the benefit of the doubt.
The problem, of course, comes when the statements of the Pope clash with a preexisting religious commitment: the devotion to the god Industry mentioned above. That's it. They are afraid that the Pope will find the projections of anthropogenic climate change credible, and that will be bad for "bidness", be bad for their side in politics, and give aid and comfort to their political rivals.
To the best of my knowledge, neither the bloggers nor the people supplying comments on the blogs are climatologists, or even have the necessary background to make a professional evaluation of the science. Without such a background, and when dealing with a process expected to take a century or more to unfold, they really have no excuse for looking for an excuse to disregard the Pope before he has even published his encyclical. (Sure, there are a handful of climatologists who think absolutely nothing will happen. There are also a handful of biologists who think Bigfoot is probably a real, bipedal, hairy ape. There were quite a few biologists who were willing to argue that smoking cigarettes is totally healthy. If you are willing to cherry pick your experts, you can always find at least one expert who will back up any idea.)
As for what I think about anthropogenic climate change, that's a topic for a later post. For here, it is sufficient to say that Catholics should not dismiss the Pope out of hand.