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A Catholic “Climate Justice” Campaign?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 20, 2009

I was amused by the news that the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) has launched a campaign for “climate justice”. CAFOD is the official overseas relief agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. CAFOD director Chris Bain stated that “Many of the world’s poorest are already living with a changing climate which is driving their precarious lives to the level of vulnerability that is unacceptable”, that “developing countries bear the brunt of climate change and yet have done the least to cause it” and that “it is time for all of us to live simply and in solidarity with the world’s poorest.”

Now why should I find this amusing? I don’t disagree that we should strive to simplify our lives, especially materially. All of us know this is difficult, but most serious Christians also know that we should try to do so. And I don’t disagree that the wealthy have a special responsibility to be careful stewards of God’s creation, or that we should cultivate a sense of solidarity with the poor, recognizing our need to share what we have with those less fortunate. So how does this amuse me? Let me count the ways.

1. A Dubious Premise

It is undeniable that the poor suffer for many reasons, but the theory that they are suffering from climate change specifically induced by rich nations is, at best, dubious. In fact, climate is constantly changing in various cycles within cycles, and nobody really knows exactly what sort of cycle we are in now, or how long it will last. Moreover, nobody knows whether man’s activity is having an appreciable impact on whatever the current cycle is. Nobody knows whether the earth is getting warmer as part of a long-term trend that is irreversible if we don’t manage things differently. Finally, nobody knows if simply “living more simply” will have any impact on whatever trend we have.

There are all kinds of competing theories about these things, and all the factors taken together constitute such an enormous set of variables that it is impossible to assess the net effect with any sort of certainty. Of course, this is no excuse not to live properly as a Catholic, or not to make wise environmental decisions insofar as we can. But because nobody really knows these things, a campaign based on the premise that we are facing problematic human-induced global warming is a very weak campaign. It is especially weak from the Catholic point of view, which provides so many certain and sound spiritual and moral reasons to live simply and be mindful of the poor.

2. A Fashionable Message

I don’t know about you, but I’m just naturally suspicious of organizations that launch initiatives based on the ideas currently most fashionable in the larger secular culture. All The Right People are concerned about global warming, just as All The Right People were concerned about the impending ice age twenty-five years ago, and concerned about the Population Bomb twenty years before that. All The Right People are also promoting reproductive rights and gay marriage while opposing school vouchers and parental notification. One should always question the intellectual company one keeps.

Here at CatholicCulture.org, we’re rather hard on Catholic web sites which feature only those Catholic ideas that are currently fashionable—those aspects of our Faith that don’t offer any sort of resistance to the prevailing secular culture. A Catholic web site, no matter how free of error it may be, cannot get a top Fidelity rating in our review system if it simply never mentions those Catholic teachings that All The Right People oppose. There is something very suspicious about any group that claims to be Catholic yet does not find itself in striking opposition to the surrounding culture at critical points in the spectrum of its purposes and activities.

In this connection, one also raises the following question: If All The Right People are already prepared to address climate change with resources vastly superior to anything CAFOD can hope to deploy, what does CAFOD hope to achieve by jumping on board? One suspects CAFOD could use its resources—from the Catholic point of view—far more wisely. Call me a curmudgeon, but one also suspects that the leaders of CAFOD would know this if they were less concerned about fashion and more concerned about what it means to be Catholic.

3. An Opportunistic Gesture

Quite apart from the need for CAFOD’s special presence in this battle, there remains the question of what the battle for “climate justice” as a whole can achieve. Let us suppose that the campaign is wildly successful, and that each person in England and Wales reduces his carbon footprint by 25 percent—a reduction astronomically higher than anyone could reasonably expect. Indeed, let us further suppose that each person in all the highly developed countries of the world reduces his footprint by this amount, an unimaginable short-term achievement on the part of “justice”. The first result of a rapid reduction caused by aggressive simplification would be the further weakening of an already staggering global economy.

Now I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that the fear of unfortunate material consequences should not deter us from pursuing a spiritual good. Nonetheless the most immediate effect would be to undermine the very economic engine that has driven a rise in the standard of living around the world in any region possessing a government willing to lay the groundwork for prosperity. The deleterious economic consequences in the third world from a rapid “simplification” in rich nations would almost certainly outweigh any possible benefit due to “climate justice”.

Worse, as we have already seen, the assumption that there will be any benefit at all is based on projections about the impact of personal habits in rich nations that are impossible to make. In other words, this campaign for “climate justice” looks very much like a mere gesture, perhaps a gesture timed to put CAFOD “ahead of the curve” in preparation for the UN’s upcoming Climate Change Conference in December. Is the whole point to make CAFOD appear to be “a player” among the international aristocracy? Is it possible that CAFOD is seeking the sort of condescending welcome that the powerful lavish on those in whom they see the triumph of their own ideas? CAFOD would not be the first religious group to prize popularity at the UN far above direct service to the poor.

4. A Weak Love

My final consideration centers on what it means to provide distinctively Catholic service, especially for a specifically Catholic service organization. Pope Benedict XVI devoted the second part of his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) to a practical application of the principle of Divine love to exactly this question. Discussing the proper understanding of both justice and charity, Benedict noted that the Church participates in the quest for justice indirectly by illuminating the judgments of the State, which has justice as its goal. But she participates in the work of charity directly, as something proper to herself. Then, in section 31, the Pope identified three distinctive elements of “Christian and ecclesial” charity:

a) Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.

b) Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.

c) Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man.

Benedict developed all three points at greater length, and the entire encyclical is worth reading, even by the directors of CAFOD. I leave it to the reader to judge whether the “climate justice” campaign exemplifies these three distinctive elements of Catholic charity.

Conclusion

There is a danger, of course, in fastening on a single initiative by a single organization as an object lesson. One cannot know the internal mindset that led to the campaign. My amusement (if so weak a term does justice to such significant concerns) is really directed toward all initiatives about which similar questions can be raised. Hopefully, there is nothing here that an indulgent smile cannot address, a smile over the cultural blindness within which many Catholic institutions continue to operate, or even a smile by equally indulgent readers at my own tendency to criticize initiatives that might otherwise be perceived as good. But Catholics ought to be raising precisely these questions about their charitable work. And if all four concerns are justified, then we must reach far beyond amusement for an appropriate response.

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