Post-Encyclical Readings

Snared by the hot button issues of the day, we serve ourselves best by standing back a bit and reading, or rereading, previous texts that anchor the mind in the longue durée. Or at least release us from the pressures of the moment. Philip Larkin’s quip that sex began in 1963 applies to a great many things, including those myths and inclinations driving the ecclesial culture that produced Laudato Si. Herewith, a small bouquet for remembrance.

Comet of 1680. From a pamphlet by Simon Bornmeister (1681). Nurenberg.
Comet of 1680. From a pamphlet by Simon Bornmeister (1681). Nurenberg.

Begin with Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841 and still in print. He introduces his chronicle of reigning hysterias and credulities, this way:

Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long, that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely suffice to detail their history. The present may be considered more of a miscellany of delusions than a history—a chapter only in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written.

Christianity reveals nothing about politics, economics, or atmospheric physics. Christopher Dawson, writing in 1934, stated words that still resonate. Keep them in mind as you read calls for the creation of global authorities, especially ones with enforcement powers on environmental matters:

[Christians] should remember that it is not the business of the Church to do the same things as the state—to build a Kingdom like the other Kingdoms of men, only better; nor to create a regime of earthly peace and justice. The Church exists to be the light of the world . . . .

That light derives from the promise of the Resurrection, a glory and a gift offered us as individuals, not as a class.

cometJesuit scholar James V. Schall, in Religion Wealth and Poverty (1990) takes note of a reality that social justice warriors tend to forget. It is that the main source of poverty in the world is ideological:

The major causes of hunger are almost always related to the quality of the governmental regime and its theory about how mankind is to be organized where there is (or is not) hunger. Ideology, in fact, the main cause of hunger, along with . . . certain attitudes to work, reward, and order. The relation of religion and moral practice to wealth producing is much closer than re are normally willing to admit. Certain doctrines and beliefs will guarantee continuing poverty.

Theodore Schultz’s Nobel Prize lecture (1980) on “The Economics of Being Poor” clarifies Fr. Schall’s point:

Future historians will no doubt be puzzled by the extent to which economic incentives were impaired during recent decades. The dominant intellectual view is antagonistic to agricultural incentive, and the prevailing economic policies deprecate the function of producer incentives. For lack of incentives the unrealized economic potential in many low-income countries is large. .  . . Interventions by governments are currently the major cause of the lack of optimum economic incentives.

Laudato Si arrives as a stalking horse for the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Paris and a promoter of its ideological bent. So listen again to Fr. Schall:

The Church has a great stake in not presenting itself as just another economic or political lobby. Unfortunately, it sometimes conceives its main purpose to concoct alternative policies, to be a sort of ecclesiastical “shadow cabinet,” waiting to explain how the world could be better run if it just voted for these practical policies.

Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, explains his having left the organization because of its increasing abandonment—thirty years ago!—of scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas:

By around the mid-1980s, when I left Greenpeace, the public had accepted most of the reasonable things we had been fighting for: stop the bomb, save the whales, stop toxic waste dumping into the earth, water, and air. Some, like myself, realized the job of creating mass awareness of the importance of the environment had been accomplished and it was time to move on from confrontation to sustainable development, seeking solutions. But others seemed bent on lifelong confrontation, “up against the man” “smash capitalism” . . . .

In order to remain confrontational as society adopted all the reasonable demands, it was necessary for these anti-establishment lifers to adopt ever more extreme positions, eventually abandoning science and logic altogether in zero-tolerance policies.

That brings us back to Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:

During the great plague of London, in 1665, the people listened with similar avidity to the predictions of quacks and fanatics. Defoe says, that at that time the people were more addicted to prophecies and astronomical conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales than ever they were before or since. Almanacs, and their predictions, frightened them terribly. Even the year before the plague broke out, they were greatly alarmed by the comet which then appeared, and anticipated that famine, pestilence, or fire would follow. Enthusiasts, while yet the disease had made but little progress, ran about the streets, predicting that in a few days London would be destroyed.

A still more singular instance of the faith in predictions occurred in London in the year 1524. The city swarmed at that time with fortune-tellers and astrologers, who were consulted daily by people of every class in society on the secrets of futurity. As early as the month of June 1523, several of them concurred in predicting that, on the 1st day of February 1524, the waters of the Thames would swell to such a height as to overflow the whole city of London, and wash away ten thousand houses. The prophecy met implicit belief. It was reiterated with the utmost confidence month after month, until so much alarm was excited that many families packed up their goods, and removed into Kent and Essex. .  .  .

By the middle of January, at least twenty thousand persons had quitted the doomed city, leaving nothing but the bare walls of their homes to be swept away by the impending floods.

The flood never happened. But we are a credulous species. From comets to climate, we are forever  trembling on the verge of Apocalypse. We must hurry to forestall it. And, in our anxiety, we risk great harm to ourselves and our neighbors.