Friday, 20 May 2011

Climate change and Americanism

This must be 'my throw a bone or two to the liberals' week (admittedly interspersed with a few brickbats!), because earlier in the week I actually praised (sort of) Cath News (and yes they have managed to continue to maintain a better balance, long may it continue!). 

And now I want to recommend an article on, of all things, Eureka Street!

The problem of speaking with authority

Over at Eureka Street,  Tim Stephens basically argues that whatever Cardinal Pell's private views on climate change, propounding them so often and so vigorously in public forums risks being interpreted as an official position of the Church, and thus causing confusion:

"On Wednesday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that 'a dire warning about the need to mitigate man-made global warning from a Vatican-appointed panel of scientists has not yet convinced Australia's highest-ranking Catholic', Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell.

The 'warning' came from... the first report released by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an independent body within the Holy See.... The report echoes the positions of both John Paul II, who spoke at length about environmental questions, and Benedict XVI, who has expressed similar anxieties and has overseen the Vatican's endeavours to become the first carbon neutral state.

The Vatican's views, however, are not shared throughout the Church, and Pell's is the loudest and most persistent voice of dissent. He has not taken aim at the Pope for his views on climate change, but has been exceptionally vigorous in his criticism of climate change and climate scientists.

The difficulty is not that he holds heterodox views on this issue. We are all entitled to our opinions. What is concerning is Australia's most senior Catholic clergyman vigorously advancing a position that could be interpreted as a statement of the official stance of the Catholic Church in Australia....

Pell has said to me that when it comes to commenting on climate change he makes clear that he is simply speaking as an individual and expects no-one to accept his claims simply on his say-so. However he does not include this disclaimer each time he speaks on climate change.

The reality is that given Pell's prominence and his constant interventions in national discussions as one of Australia's best-known climate change contrarians, his views gain a good deal more attention in the media than the views of Australian bishops more generally.

I agree.

And do read the whole article, it has some interesting material on the science and the extent of the Cardinal's contributions on the whole topic (just resist the temptation to read anything else over there, in the interest of avoiding righteous anger!).

The underlying issue that I want to highlight though is that we have a major problem in the Church at the moment with the inability of catholics at all levels to be able to distinguish between what is and isn't open to debate.  Bishops publicly pronouncing on issues that actually are matters of private opinion, or even making quasi-political judgments (most often occurring in cases where several ways of implementing the Church's social teachings in particular are arguably open) does not help this problem.

In fact it encourages the, 'well let's just reject the lot' mentality.

Conservative politics and the Church

Indeed Cardinal Pell's influence on this and other issues reflects more closely the views of American catholic conservatives than the mainstream of the Church.  And his influence extends well beyond our shores.

One of my favourite sites, the Pulp.It, for example, departed from its normal (and stated) focus on the blogosphere to pick up the Sydney Morning Herald article.  And it has notably declined to pick my commentary on said article (thus far at least)! 

Now every blogger is entitled to put his (or her) own slant on things, not least in the selection of whether and which pieces to highlight.  In fact that is the whole point of blogging!  So I'm certainly not disputing the Pulp-it's right to do that.

All the same, sorry Tito, because you've been a very good friend indeed of this blog, but this does strikes me as at least suggestive of the continuing influence, albeit no longer in the realm of outright heresy, of the Americanism condemned by Leo XIII

American foreign policy

In my view, American exceptionalism is still pervasive amongst US and some Australian catholic conservatives, leading them to take what often seems to be a, shall we say, fairly unique view of Catholic Social Teaching, and to ignore inconvenient views of the Holy See on issues such as the application of Just War principles and climate change. 

Now it's true that those inconvenient views don't have the same level of authority as infallible doctrine.  Still, at least some of them do come under the umbrella of the ordinary magisterium, and others should surely at least be treated as important to consider rather than publicly rejected outright.

But in fact if anything conservatives seem to be hardening in their positions.  Take this recent post by Dr Robert Royal on The Catholic Thing, which actually lauds the idea of American exceptionalism, claiming a religious mandate for America's aggressive foreign polices over the last century:

"The killing of Osama bin Laden a few weeks ago raised, yet again, the question of American exceptionalism. I was in Europe for the JPII beatification at the time and, surprisingly, most of the media over there praised the SEAL operation, as well as the only country on earth that could have carried it out. [Really? I don't want to take away from the considerable achievement this involved, and the service to the world it represents - it certainly passes the just war principles test in my view.  But I can think of more than a few other countries that can and have carried out political assassinations and snatch and grabs of this type in the not so recent past.  Think of Russia.  The UK in Ireland and elsewhere.  Israel.  And that's just for starters]. 

Denial of American exceptionalism was far stronger and stranger here, tapping at moments into the deep current of self-loathing that has been with us since Vietnam. But nations are anointed at certain points, by Providence or history, to play exceptional roles: Greece, Rome, Israel, France, Italy, England, and – for the past century – America.

Now Australians, myself  included, are generally supporters of our alliance with America. 

But personally I'd have to say that most Australians would take a rather more sceptical view of the providential nature of many US foreign policy ventures of the past century.  Indeed, I'd argue that more than a few of them have created greater problems than they solved, the invasion of Iraq currently standing at the top of that list.

While patriotism is certainly an important virtue, Catholics need to stand outside their national and political allegiances at times, and critically assess  issues from the point of view of their faith first and foremost.

And bishops, in my view at least, should do their best to help that process by focusing first and foremost on teaching the applicable principles rather than engaging directly in the political debate (subject of course to the extreme exceptions) from whatever perspective.


Felix said...

I agree that Cardinal Pell should be more judicious in confining his comments to matters on which he has a real, ecclesial authority.

People such as clerics, judges, and generals should be more circumspect than others, to avoid compromising their authority and the public's trust in their office.

And similarly, John Paul II should have distinguished his private notions and judgements from actual Catholic tradition. And perhaps even refrained from unnecessarily expressing such opinions.

Anthony S. Layne said...

I'm not going to claim to be free of any taint of "exceptionalism". But the piece by Royal was just embarrassing. Having the money and tech to carry that hit out only proves that we're rich, not that it's our Manifest Destiny to be the great World Leader. Besides, we do need to apologize to the world for inflicting McDonald's on it.

Kate said...

Glad to hear an American had that reaction to the Royal piece Anthony!

But I'm not sure you need to apologies for Maccers - we do buy the stuff by the ton after all, so a strong case for co-responsibility!

I have to admit that part of the problem is just that American politics and culture is often so alien to Australian, particularly on attitudes to Government (for example our 'conservative' Opposition leader, Tony Abbott is currently attacking the (pseudo-left of centre) Labor Government for cutting 'middle class' welfare going to those on incomes of $150,000 and above!) that I for one find it difficult to follow the competing streams of thought and blog comment.

A Canberra Observer said...

The Cardinal, sadly, should never be let near a microphone without a very secure face mask.

PM said...

In addition to climate change and the just war, politically conservative americanists (and their camp-followers elsewhere) tend to espouse views on economics and related matters (e.g. the role of trade unions) that owe more to Hayek, Friedman and Ayn Rand than to Catholic teaching.

In an extreme case, a lay Dominican who runs a blogsite recently had an anxious query from a young girl who had met someone at a pro-life meeting who claimed to know all about moral theology and insisted it was 'heresy' to maintain that governments should spend money on anything other than law enforcement and defence. (The identification of the pro-life cause with the hard political right is lead in its saddlebags, IMHO.)