Acton Institute Powerblog

Acton Commentary: The Not-So-Green Pope

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

In his commentary, Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, explains how labeling Pope Benedict XVI as the “greenest pope in history” is actually misleading.  Instead, Benedict’s attention to the environment is grounded in an orthodox Christian theological analysis.  Gregg articulates this assertion by citing Benedict’s most recent social encyclical Caritas in Veritate:

Also telling is Benedict’s insistence upon a holistic understanding of what we mean by the word ecology. “The book of nature”, Benedict insists, “is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations” (CV 51). In other writings, Benedict highlights the incongruity of people being outraged about wanton environmental destruction, while ignoring or even promoting the deep damage done by ethical relativism to society’s moral ecology.

Incidentally, the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” appear nowhere in Caritas in Veritate. Again, this is not surprising. Benedict has been careful not to prejudge the science of this complex subject. In his 2008 World Day of Peace message, Benedict observed that in thinking through environmental problems, “It is important for assessments to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions.”

Gregg reminds us that Benedict’s stance on environmental concerns is based upon a orthodox Christian theological reflection on man’s relationship with the natural world, and that the pope is careful to not romanticize nature.

Louie Glinzak


  • Damon

    I read Gregg’s commentary, Louie, and I thought is was a very poor piece. The basic problem is that it makes being green and adhering to an orthodox Christian theological perspective mutually exlclusive. Why is this necessary? What we learn from B16 and the Catholic Social Doctrine is that being green and protecting the environment is itself an implication of Christian orthodoxy.

    The key rhetorical trickery in Gregg’s piece is the consistent use of the qualifier “some” when he speaks of environmentalists. “Some” make nature more important than humans – “some” are pantheists, etc. So what? Of course that is heresy, but these heresies are not intrinsic to “green” policies. This is such an elementary kind of sophistry that I am embarrassed for Gregg.

    He seems to get to his true agenda when he starts promoting the minority view of scientists challenging the human role in causing climate change. I have a hard time believing that Gregg and the Acton Institute promote this view on the basis of scientific knowledge and intellectual conviction. Come on, isn’t it the case that you are clinging to this minority view because it rationalizes the economic interests of your corporate supporters?

    I believe AI has an important mission: applying Catholic moral and social teaching to matters of political economy, and I support it. But pieces like this, as well as Gregg’s skewed reading of Caritas in Veritate, make AI’s partisan agenda very obvious.

  • Kevin


    It is a bit inconsistent to accuse Dr. Gregg of sophistry and then to dismiss his (and other Acton writers’) views on climate change as nothing but a crass kowtow to the wishes of our (alleged) corporate sponsors.

    One of the phenomena that has contributed powerfully to my skepticism toward the strong view of human beings’ role in climate change is that its critics are routinely met by its supporters with derision rather than engagement, and their motives are almost always called into question. That is not the way to have a serious debate.

    The fact is that a high percentage of businesses have capitulated to the cultural rage for all things “green.” Far from fighting the idea, they are using it to their marketing advantage. Moreover, many are transforming themselves in response to government incentives (e.g., subsidization of “clean power.”) My point is that at this time, there is more economic advantage to “being green” than there is to criticizing any part of the trend.

    No, Damon, we are not corporate lackeys waiting for marching orders from wealthy special interests. We actually believe what we say. If people find that appealing, they support us.

  • Damon

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your reply. The real substance of my critique is the first two paragraphs. Since you did not respond to that, I take it that you find me persuasive in that regard.

    It appears that I have struck a nerve by simply sharing my impression that Gregg and AI are promoting the dissenting perspective on the science of climate change on the basis of economic interest rather than scientic knowledge. I did not, as you state, “dismiss his (and other Acton writers’) views on climate change as nothing but a crass kowtow to the wishes of our (alleged) corporate sponsors” or call anyone “corporate lackeys waiting for marching orders from wealthy special interests.” That certainly would be very unfair (although I think it is disingenuous for you to write that your corporate sponsorship is “alleged” – all one has to do is look at your board of directors – are you seriously suggesting that this is not true?). I am just saying that this is the impression I am left with in the absence of any sign that Gregg or anyone else at AI is competent to judge the quality of differing arguments in climate science.

    You state that the grounds for your suspicion of the strong view of human involvement in climate change are (1) the way its proponents disparage its critics and (2) the fact that the green movement has gained cultural traction. I too regret the lack of intellectual integrity in both cases, but I do not see how this legitimates skepticism toward climate change science. Bad behavior and herd culture are ever-present in human society. I am still left with the impression that you, Gregg, and AI promote the dissenting view due to ideological commitments and sources of material support, but I do not doubt your sincerity.

  • Kevin


    Thank you in turn for your thoughtful reply. A few points in rejoinder.

    1) No, you conclude incorrectly that I find your opening paragraphs persuasive. I don’t see anything wrong with use of the qualifier “some.” To me, that denotes intellectual honesty, not sleight of hand. Indeed, “some” greens do exhibit the negative qualities that Gregg (and Benedict) attribute to them. By implication, not all do. Would it have been better for him simply to say “Greens”, unqualified?

    With that said, I concede that there can be problems with the use of such shorthand as “green.” Anyone who has attempted 700-word commentaries knows that this a thorny, but unavoidable, problem.

    2) Upon re-reading your initial post, it still seems to me that you did dismiss Gregg’s climate change point as merely the product of his dependence on corporate sponsors, but I’ll take you at your word that you didn’t intend that. More difficult to digest is your dual claim that a) AI writers’s views are conditioned in some significant respect by “sources of material support,” and yet that you “do not doubt” our “sincerity.” Perhaps we have different views of what constitutes intellectual integrity, I don’t know. My views are the product of years of education, disciplinary training in history, philosophy, theology, etc., thousands of pages of reading, including the reading of contemporary views and evidence, discussion with peers, and so forth. If I reach a view on the basis of those factors, and then change, shift, or adapt it merely because I know it will make those in control of the purse strings happier, I would call that a failure of integrity (or other worse names). It would obviously be too much for me to say that has never happened in the history of the Acton Institute, but I can assure you that it is rare. Speaking for myself, I’ve never done it.

    I’m spending some time on this because we encounter this argument frequently (“struck a nerve,” as you say, but maybe not for the reasons you think–not because it’s accurate, but because it’s common and distracts from substantive debate). I suppose my main objection to this whole line of thought is the implication that there’s something unseemly about the “think tank game,” played by folks such as those at Acton. The view, among some, seems to be that we’re not people of conviction and integrity trying to make a positive difference in politics, church, and society, but that instead we are academics-for-hire, formulating our opinions so as to maximize financial support from corporate interests.

    Sure, there are business executives on our board. What does that prove? This is not naivete: I’m being serious. One would be hard-pressed to find a non-profit, including hospitals and universities, whose board is not made up predominantly of business executives, yet similar accusations are never made against university professors. I readily concede that the think tank world is not perfectly analogous to the university world. Acton certainly takes a “point of view,” or at least represents a range of views, within certain parameters. But I submit that the analogy is not as far-fetched as you might think. I have spent time in a university setting. I feel at least as free–probably more–to state my opinions and write what I believe at Acton as I have in traditional academia.

    My challenge to you, Damon, is to shift your thinking on this matter a bit, along the lines I suggested at the end of my first response. Acton is an organization comprised of (more or less) like-minded folks. We attract support from people who want to support what we’re doing. The point is that our convictions come first, the support follows, not vice versa. It’s an important distinction and, I would argue, makes us not all that different from any other charity, non-profit, or educational institution.

    3. A final brief clarification. You include “the fact that the green movement has gained cultural traction” as a reason that I adduced for my skepticism toward it. That’s not what I said. I cited the green movement’s economic clout to make the point that, if in fact AI was “in it for the money,” it would make more sense to take a pro-human-caused-climate-change position rather than the opposite. There is far more foundation and government money available to the pro side of that debate. Or so it appears to me.

  • Kevin

    Sorry, left a hanging a) there. Should have been:

    More difficult to digest is your dual claim that a) AI writers’s views are conditioned in some significant respect by “sources of material support,” and yet b) you “do not doubt” our “sincerity.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Damon: “I have a hard time believing that Gregg and the Acton Institute promote this view on the basis of scientific knowledge and intellectual conviction.”

    That’s so typical of the left! Instead of a debate on evidence or reason, they immediately trash the motives of anyone who disagrees with them. If you disagree with radical environmentalists, you can’t possibly be intelligent. Besides, the minority view on climate change isn’t wrong because it’s a minority view. Truth isn’t a matter of democracy. The majority view is wrong because it is not based on science, but on politics.

  • Damon


    I agree with most everything you write here. I think I can boil down our remaining difference to the following:

    1) What I continue to regard as a kind of sophistry in Gregg’s piece is the link that he forges betwen green policies and pantheism. Gregg says, “Benedict is not green – he is a big critic of pantheism.” This implies that those who favor green policies are pantheists. I think this is unfair and a distraction. I believe that Gregg is trading on this distration because he knows that Benedict advocates major restrictions on economic exploitation of nature on the basis of his orthodox Catholic theological commitments and Catholic social teaching. Free market thinking on the other hand derives from modern dissenting forms of Protestantism. (By the way, I wonder what you and other AI people think of Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory — especially Part I, as well as the work of Daniel Bell and D. Stephen Long, which derives from Milbank)

    2. My objection is not to think tanks per se. I believe that all our intellectual commitments are influenced implicitly or explicitly by the material conditions which make our lives possible. My point is not a general one about the positions of AI. I understand their intellectual appeal, even though I believe many of AI’s theoretical and policy positions are harder to square with Catholic Social Teaching in the wake of Caritas in Veritate. My concern is specific here to the issue of climate change. I do not see any sign that Gregg and AI have a strong intellectual basis for their promotion of the dissenting view in this case. That is what leads me to deduce that another basis is primary.

    Regarding the possibility of being overdetermined by one’s interests and still being sincere, I would remind you of a quote from the Apologia pro Vita Sua by (soon to be) Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Who can know himself, and the multitude of subtle influences which act upon him?”

  • Roger McKinney

    Damon: “Free market thinking on the other hand derives from modern dissenting forms of Protestantism.”

    No, free market thinking came from the Catholic late Scholastics, especially those of the school of Salamanca, Spain. All the Protestants did was implement their wisdom. Max Weber was close to the truth, but he didn’t search deep enough. Look up the article in the Journal of Markets and Morality on Lessius, one of the last scholastics. Lessius brought the scholastic teaching to the Dutch Republic, which implemented it to the greatest degree and created capitalism. And Protestants kept the tradition. But Weber is wrong that capitalism comes from Calvinism. Calvin was very anti-market and insisted on the need for the state to regulate it. The chief opponents of free markets in the Dutch Republic were the Calvinists. Fortunately, the Erasmian Protestants won.

  • Kevin


    Reasonable points. I’d still like to argue about a few of the details (e.g., along the lines Roger suggests: the Protestant/Catholic/capitalism history is a tangled one; and radical orthodoxy: intriguing, important interlocutors, but ultimately wrong), but time constraints on my part require ending this thread for the moment.

    As for Newman, I’ll rarely disagree with him, and certainly not with the truth contained in this quotation. Thanks for your contributions to our blog discussion.