An Examination of Conscience

An Examination of Conscience

Robert Royal

Penitent: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been about one month since my last Confession, and these are my sins:

I failed to recycle, thirty times.
I took six plane rides
. .”
Priest: “Hold on there. What are these sins that you’re talking about?”

Pen.: “Well, the Holy Father has said, ‘If you don’t recycle, go to Confession.’ And I heard on NPR, or CNN, or maybe it was just a Tweet, that flying in planes – which I have to do for business – pollutes the upper atmosphere and contributes more to climate change per mile than any other mode of travel. So I’m just assuming that it’s one of those things you just have to confess in today’s Church. . . .”

You could have a fair amount of fun with scenarios like this one, if you were to take literally various things now happening in and around the Vatican on matters ecological. But perhaps this little bit suffices to make the point. Despite the arguments in many parts of the Vatican these days that life is not black and white. And that we need to get used to shades of gray. And practice discernment and accompaniment of people who cannot yet live the Christian ideal in their daily lives, there seem to be some limits and exceptions to all these new indulgences. If you don’t recycle, go to Confession? Penitents and priests alike may be confused about just what the new rules are.

Some of the better informed people I’ve met with the past few days in Rome think that things like the Workshop on Bioextinction are more a matter of drift than a co-ordinated program. There were, they say, programs just as untethered to Catholic ways of thought at Pontifical Academies under JPII and Benedict XVI.

That’s true. But it’s also true that it was understood during those pontificates that such events were far from reflecting papal views. In the current context, where the pope has essentially dispensed with consulting the Curia and set up what many in the Vatican call his own “parallel Curia” of a few close associates, it’s not as easy to ignore what these events may portend.

The controversy over this event has largely been driven by the way that the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences has let itself be dominated by population control figures affiliated with the United Nations such as Jeffrey Sachs and Michael Shank. That there are a few Catholics sprinkled into the proceedings does not much alter a simple fact: anyone looking at the lineup would be hard pressed to see how it would be much different if it were being run out of the U.N. rather than the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences.

There’s lots of talk here about how the U.N. is providing funding to the PASS and how eager some figures in the Vatican are to be accepted by these large international bodies. That seems indisputable, but all that has unfortunately diverted attention from the fact that there are legitimate questions about our relationship with nature that need to be addressed. And need precisely the kind of contribution that the Catholic emphasis on faith and reason ­– and neglected human things – could bring to a discussion that seems limited to the materialist assumptions of the population-control crowd.

Those assumptions ride roughshod over real people (some in Rome detect a whiff of racism in the way that only Africa gets mentioned by name for one of the sessions). As Matthew Connelly, a historian at Columbia University has noted:

The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people’s interests better than they knew it themselves. . . . The essence of population control, whether it targeted migrants, the “unfit,” or families that seemed either too big or too small, was to make rules for other people without having to answer to them. It appealed to people with power because, with the spread of emancipatory movements, it began to appear easier and more profitable to control populations than to control territory. That is why opponents were essentially correct in viewing it as another chapter in the unfinished business of imperialism.
And in truth, despite all the condoms, pills, abortions that the U.N. pushes, the human population is going to grow by another 2-3 billion souls in this century before the numbers even off. The human race will also, despite all the international accords and efforts at promoting alternative energy sources, continue to put large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere


It’s not easy, perhaps not even possible, to predict what this will mean because science and technology will be rapidly developing during the same period, with who knows what potentials? For a long time, the best thinkers about what needs doing right now – who are not present in the PASS conference, in my view – have argued that instead of fruitless and costly efforts to limit population and energy use, we should devote resources to adaptation and the kinds of basic research on energy generation and food supplies likely to be needed whatever develops.

I mentioned yesterday that there are people in the room like the Italian economist Stefano Zamagni who would be worth hearing on these questions. But he’s not scheduled to speak. A scientist who knows the players – and is one himself at the national and international level – tells me that someone who is a speaker, Jane Lubchenko, an expert on oceans, does sound science and has given presentations in Catholic circles on environment and spirituality. The program could easily have been balanced out with other participants of that kind while preserving a high intellectual level.

The question is why was it not? Only two answers are possible. Either the administration of the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences does not know enough about these subjects to reach out to a wider circle of distinguished scholars, Catholic and not, who would have a richer sense of the human future. Or the administration feels no great objection to what is essentially a secular, materialist approach to that future.

There’s no tertium quid, and either alternative is disturbing to contemplate.

A note: I’ll be traveling home tomorrow (Thursday). There will be a concluding press conference in the morning while I’m in the air. Old Vatican hands have pointed out to me that the press event is scheduled for exactly the same time as the pope will be in a meeting with the priests of Rome – which will be covered via a live television feed and promises, as these off-the-cuff events always do with Pope Francis, to produce something newsworthy. Deliberate? More evidence of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing? Who knows? Whatever the case, I’m going to skip the report on Thursday, and to return and try to give you as full a final report as possible on Friday. Please check back then.

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