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.