Are Boomers values trumping Catholic teaching on the environment?

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When it comes to Catholic “stewardship” of the environment, are the U.S. bishops letting American Baby Boomer bourgeois values trump authentic Catholic social teaching?

That appears to be the case in recent years, as Laudato Si and institutional Church responses to it have led to an uptick in official Catholic lobbying on environmental issues. The USCCB, which has come under fire in recent weeks for a string of questionable community activist campaigns in prudential matters ranging from labor union dues to illegal immigrant status, has an entire section of their website devoted to pressuring governments to increase regulations in the environmental field. The California Catholic Conference devotes a big chunk of their footprint to an initiative called “Caring for Our Common Home.”

There’s even a self-appointed operation called “Catholic Climate Covenant” that claims to speak for the bishops on these matters. These all advocate for the same green policy outcomes one might expect from a left-wing environmental group.

If things seem upside down in Catholic social teaching these days, it should. What Faithful Citizenship here in America and the social teaching encyclicals of Pope Saint John Paul II in Rome so clearly laid out in prior pontificates—that not all social issues are created equal, and that there is preferential option for those issues touching on intrinsic life matters—has been totally undermined in recent years.

Every four years, the U.S. bishops update Faithful Citizenship, which is supposed to help inform Catholic consciences in voting. The section entitled “Doing Good and Avoiding Evil” lays out a hierarchy of social justice concerns, with intrinsic evils to be opposed at the top (abortion, cloning, euthanasia, genocide, torture, and terrorism being singled out as the first tier), and lesser though real social justice concerns down the line. Worries about the environment are included in the section on prudential judgment, where Catholics in good conscience can have differing viewpoints as to the best way to execute the basic moral imperative to act. This is all echoed in the John Paul II encyclicals Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor, as others have written about time and time again.

Even in Faithful Citizenship, though, the U.S. bishops’ concern for the environment is not an end in itself, but rather relates back to the human person:

“The current and projected extent of environmental degradation has become a moral crisis especially because it poses a risk to humanity in the future and threatens the lives of poor and vulnerable human persons here and now.”

The human person, it is clear, is the focus and object of Catholic social teaching. The concern should be how the human family—especially the poor—can improve their material and spiritual well-being.

Unfortunately, a kind of ideological colonization (to paraphrase Pope Francis) has crept into Catholic social teaching in the United States. The values of middle class, mostly white, always bourgeois Catholics—especially those in the Baby Boomer generation, who tend to run the institutions—has replaced what should be a radical focus on the human person.

This is nowhere clearer than in the input-driven world of Catholic environmental activism.

A quick perusal of the USCCB website shows that the bishops have—in the past year alone—weighed in on such matters as EPA funding, the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Agreement, and President Trump’s environmental executive order. Nowhere in these statements is a clear statement that Catholics in good conscience can disagree on these prudential matters, even though that is obvious Church teaching. Rather, the impression is given that EPA funding is on par with (say) euthanasia. When “seamless garment” is laughed out of the room as a grave error, this is the reason.

The result of this is feel-good government responses that cooperate with this malformed version of Catholic social teaching. By way of example, in California Governor Jerry Brown (supposedly a Catholic) has put forward a $2.5 billion plan to put 5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. That is fifteen times more than what is there now. California also takes advantage of a Clean Air waiver allowing the state to mandate electric vehicle purchases, diverting tax dollars away from beneficial programs to support subsidies for the rich. Keep in mind that the average income for a Tesla owner is $320,000.

Catholics supporting this kind of environmental activism need to ask themselves if their consciences are properly formed so that they are thinking with the mind of the Church. Could that $2.5 billion be used in way that actually help families, as opposed to making upper class, white, Baby Boomers feel good about their carbon footprints? For example, how many pregnant unwed mothers could be given the support they need to choose life? How much might be spent on making eldercare more dignified and comfortable, to avoid painful temptations to commit suicide? Why not focus on mending the crumbling roads that help hard-working Catholic families shuttle to work daily? What about the basic Biblical concepts of feeding or clothing the poor?

The fact that these distinctions are never made—and that politicians can then use a generic, suburban liberal agenda as a substitute for a radical commitment to life and family—is the fault not of Catholic social teaching, but rather distorted manipulations of it. California’s 45-year old Clean Air Act waiver makes a mockery of the Church’s teachings (solidarity with the poor comes to mind), and the EPA should revoke it to better serve the state’s less fortunate communities.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

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Ryan Ellis writes about politics and policy for Forbes. He's also an avid New England Patriots fan.

11 Comments

  1. As a so-called Baby Boomer who has never supported the progressive agenda within the Church, I think you may be missing something of what has been happening.It is really the other way around. With the Papacy of JPII the progressives in the Church, over time, had to go underground, their ability to implement the ‘Spirit of VII’ was greatly hindered. Until the election of Pope Francis. Now they have come out of the shadows and the big push is on. When it comes to voting the bishops have normally always used vague language especially with the issue of abortion, to promote their seamless garment nonsense. Back in the early 80s each parish in the LI diocese where i was living had a message read during all Masses telling the pewsitters it was not a 1 issue election,meaning we were not to cast our vote solely on the life issue.
    In my lifetime the bishops have for the most part , especially through the USCCB, have supported the Democrat liberal agenda, and the beat goes on, although much louder now as their greatest cheerleader is now the head of the Catholic Church.

    I think many younger Catholics having had the benefit of growing up with a Church led by JPIiI and Benedict XVI as well as the great blessing of having the Latin Mass available like no other time since the 1960s, have a tendency to blame older Catholics for all ills in the Church, yes many went off the rails joining in what was and is a Church led revolt, but many, did not and will not.

    • Malcolm Merlyn on

      But then we’ll have to Deal with Millennial Values. I guess every generation has their own problems.

  2. Joseph Colosi on

    Are you suggesting that dealing with air pollution from fossil fuels and the worldwide devastation from climate change are not part of the radical focus on the welfare of the human person?

  3. Our Church hierarchy has decided upon becoming a pack of irrelevant agenda driven fools, abdicating the power of their true mission, which is the encouragement of personal sanctity and vulnerability to God in the faithful, in favor of activity useless to that one mission to which they were ordained. Political action, and even taking public positions on political matters, is not in their job description and never will be because when hearts are changed and sanctified through communion with God, so too will our corrupt society be. This does not mean that our clergy cannot take personal positions on such matters, especially in defiance of organized evil but their one mission must always be the encouragement of the personal surrender to the insatiable desire of God to embrace all who will make themselves so vulnerable. Becoming entangled in so called “political action” and taking public political positions to further their own views which are not intrinsic to the protection and saving of souls is abandonment of the only mission. bestowed upon them by Christ and by the one true Church. Political positions become based upon the actual truth which originates and resides only in God and issues forth only from Him when our bishops and our Pope stick their day job which is one thing only, the fostering of communion with God. Otherwise in the sight of God they are as useless as a sixth toe in the one crucial interest of the faithful which is the final attainment of their destiny of life with God in Heaven.

  4. Besides being unversed in moral theology, most people are just plain unversed. Take the green infatuation with electric cars. According to a recent study: Due to the extra energy required to mine the unique minerals needed for the batteries, an electric car has to travel at least 110,000 miles before it breaks even with a gasoline-powered car, all other things being equal, and perhaps as much as 130,000 miles (energy is expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent, the environmentalists’ favorite). But somewhere in that range new batteries are needed. Therefore, the electric car can break even only theoretically at a mileage beyond the typical ownership period. Moreover, the cobalt needed for the batteries comes substantially from the Congo area, where many children are forced into brutally long days under the whip of a heartless shift supervisor. Whether you believe carbon dioxide is good or bad (another area that attracts the unversed), a gasoline-powered car is a better deal, and cleaner, and more socially just. FYI, plants vote overwhelmingly for more carbon dioxide by their increased growth, increased hardiness toward stress and increased food productivity.

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  6. I agree they need to stick to what they are to do and their nose out of things they don’t know
    They are to be in this world to help others to get to Heaven not of this world trying to be in the news. They are to give their life to God and His church, in order to become a Priest or Nun so many seem to have forgotten this.

  7. Malcolm Merlyn on

    Is it really necessary for the author to describe the boomer’s as “white.” The mere fact that one is white, or even upper-class, does not invalidate their viewpoint. The issue here is that Church teaching is being distorted, with too much emphasis on the environment and “Mother Earth” (shouldn’t it be “Sister Earth” for us, since the Earth is created by God?) and forgetting that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God and thus has more dignity than other aspects of creation such as plants and animals.

  8. Kathy M Dobrowolski on

    I agree with Sharon. I am also a baby boomer who agrees with this article 100%. I think it should read “liberal boomers values” as opposed to those of us who are conservatives and 100% pro-life. The human being is so much more important than his footprint.

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