I recently enjoyed a brief back-and-forth with 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben in which he claimed that I accused him of lacking religious faith. That most assuredly was not the case. I told him so, but also stood by my initial assertion that he and other environmental activists are cherry-picking Pope Francis’ Laudato Si for religious and moral firepower on climate-change while ignoring those elements that are core Roman Catholic teachings with which they disagree.
Let’s look at Mr. McKibben’s religious background, shall we? In his essay, “Doing the Math: The Scale of Global Warming and the Urgency of Self-Restraint” (in Sacred Commerce, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2014) he expresses his religion thusly:
The highest I ever rose in the ecclesial hierarchy was a Sunday school teacher at our backwoods Methodist church. It’s such a small church that the only qualification for being a Sunday school teacher is if on Christmas Eve you can take a dish towel and turn a third grader into a Palestinian shepherd for the pageant. So that’s the degree of my theological qualification. On the other hand, these are questions that I have thought about and written about a good deal.
Of course, McKibben tells me in our conversation that he has authored a book on Job, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, to boost his religious bona fides. He also mentions he’s taught college courses on the Bible – not that either requires one to be religious, mind you, but only somewhat adept at background reading.
But he misses entirely the point I was making – and that is Pope Francis adheres to settled non-negotiable Catholic doctrine on issues regarding human life in Laudato Si while straying into prudential questions such as climate change and public policies to mitigate global warming. McKibben (and the majority of the media reporting subsequent to release of Laudato Si) latches on to the latter without mention of the former. It is just these teachings on the sanctity of life to which we Catholics are morally bound by our faith. But within the parameters of Catholic Social Teaching we Catholics can and do have any number of opinions about the benefits of free markets and technological progress. That’s where the prudence (and empirical evidence) comes in.
At least eco-warrior Naomi Klein groks the inherent contradictions in supporting the Pope on climate change while disagreeing with him on nearly everything else related to Roman Catholicism. In the most recent New Yorker, Ms. Klein acknowledges accepting her invitation to speak at the Vatican press conference is opportunistic on her part:
As usual ahead of stressful trips, I displace all of my anxiety onto wardrobe. The forecast for Rome in the first week of July is punishingly hot, up to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. Women visiting the Vatican are supposed to dress modestly, no exposed legs or upper arms. Long, loose cottons are the obvious choice, the only problem being that I have a deep-seated sartorial aversion to anything with the whiff of hippie.
Surely the Vatican press room has air-conditioning. Then again, “Laudato Si’ ” makes a point of singling it out as one of many “harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more.” Will the powers that be make a point of ditching the climate control just for this press conference? Or will they keep it on and embrace contradiction, as I am doing by supporting the Pope’s bold writings on how responding to the climate crisis requires deep changes to our growth-driven economic model—while disagreeing with him about a whole lot else?
Points to Klein for intellectual honesty, who also admits the Vatican did indeed power up the soul-sucking air conditioner so maligned by Pope Francis himself in Laudato Si. McKibben, however, hides behind Job – as if the Old Testament fellow hasn’t suffered enough.
It’s okay for McKibben to admit he’s only partying with Pope Francis to forward the climate-change policy agenda. It really isn’t necessary to default to feigned offense that someone (me, specifically) doubted his religious faith. Whether McKibben is genuinely Christian or simply a pantheist, it’ll be awkward when he finally breaks it off with the Pope because the Catholic component is too much for him to take.
This isn’t conjecture inasmuch it’s based on what Pope Francis writes about population growth contrasted with another book authored by McKibben, Maybe One. From McKibben’s own website:
The father of a single child himself, McKibben maintains that bringing one, and no more than one, child into this world will hurt neither your family nor our nation—indeed, it can be an optimistic step toward the future.
Maybe One is not just an environmental argument but a highly personal and philosophical one. McKibben cites new and extensive research about the developmental strengths of only children; he finds that single kids are not spoiled, weird, selfish, or asocial, but pretty much the same as everyone else.
McKibben recognizes that the transition to a stable population size won’t be easy or painfree but ultimately is inevitable. Maybe One provides the basis for provocative, powerful thought and discussion that will influence our thinking for decades to come.
While McKibben can ride high on Laudato Si while embracing climate-change as reality and government efforts to mitigate it a necessity for the time being, eventually, he will be forced to contend with Pope Francis’ very direct statement concerning population control:
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”.
So there you have it, McKibben. Ball’s in your court. How will you reconcile your views on procreation and human life with some of the most profound non-negotiables of Catholic doctrine?