Concerning the “Ecological” Path to Salvation

The most problematic issue that Pope Francis’ earth-warming advocacy brings up is its scientific status; at best, it is opinion backed by some evidence

(Photo: | f9photos)

(Photo: | f9photos)

“For Christians, all creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation.” — Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, June 17, 2015.

“But Christian utopia is a spiritual concept, for Christians have the insight to grasp that man, in his earthly existence, is an incorrigibly flawed creature, that his earthly constructs invariably end up in disappointment at best; that he cannot, in fact, attain satisfaction and fulfillment on earth, and that the utopian kingdom is not of this world. Christians, therefore, should be in no danger of first supposing that perfectibility can be attained in human societies, and then advocating the appalling measures which invariably mark efforts to erect earthly utopias… Environmental policies are also on the progressive agenda…. But it is significant that those who have made it their business to wage environmental politics have sought to associate pollution and other anti-social effects of modern industry exclusively with capitalism and the profit motive, and have virtually ignored the often far more serious ravages of state-owned industries in the Communist block and third world socialist states.” — Paul Johnson. “Is Totalitarianism Dead?” (Crisis, Feb. 1, 1989)


The first public reaction that I saw to the new Encyclical was in some web site, I forget where. Two initial comments were identical: “I am leaving the Church”!

“This will never do!” I thought. A New York Times editorial, contrary to its usual practice, chided Catholic politicians for not obeying the Pope now that he appears to agree with policies the Times approves.

In a June 17th column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Debra Saunders compared organized religion to earth warmers. “Climate change alarmism has always had a lot in common with organized religion. What’s the message of hard-core environmentalists? ‘The end is near’. ‘Repent’!…. To the true believer, the most important thing is not whether people stop contributing to greenhouse gases, but that they believe they should.” A lineal relationship between secular eschatology, the transferal of Christian four last things from transcendence to this-worldly projects has been noticed at least since J. B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress (1920). How this phenomenon worked was the central import of Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi and Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life.

Whether or not we need church leaders also “believing” this ecological doctrine is probably not so clear. Still, the most problematic issue that Pope Francis’ earth-warming advocacy brings up is its scientific status. At best, it is opinion backed by some evidence. The document does not mention contrary evidence. Satellite readings of the planet’s temperature are different from UN computer generated statistics. The planet’s temperature has not changed in recent decades. Most of the controverted issues can plausibly be explained by natural causes. Climate changes have occurred on this planet since its beginning, long before man. The burning of fossil fuels does not produce any significant change in the already very low percentage (0.035%) of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Not a few observers draw a parallel between the Galileo case and this one. It is a useful caution. The damage potential to the Church’s credibility is great if all the scientific evidence is not in or considered. The best we can say for putting one’s eggs in the climate warmer basket is that many scientists, mostly those dependent on government subsidies to prove it is true, say it is so. The Pope’s own plea for “humility” in this document would seem to apply here concerning scientific questions that are at best hypotheses subject to change.


What are we to make of this document, now that we see it? First of all, we can find some very lovely passages on the beauty of the planet. The pope is a bit of a poet when he describes them. Insofar as the document has theological overtones, it is a treatise on creation, not redemption as it is usually understood. Creation itself, of course, is a controverted issue in scientific circles, though considerable scientific evidence seems to support its fact. Creation was not necessary. [1]. God did not need to create. [2]. He created a total order as a gift. The divine plan was to work itself out in the fullness of time for His end. The race of rational beings, though essential to it, was not created for the sake of the earth. Man had both natural and a supernatural purpose.

Normally, this purpose is held to be the association of other rational beings in God’s inner or Trinitarian life. The cosmos was seen to be created in the Word through the Spirit. This end meant that within the cosmos, as the Pope notes, we find a reflection of the Trinitarian life in every existing being. Ultimately, this reflection is really what natural law implies. Man was free to work out his response to the gift of his salvation. It could not be imposed on him. Hence, a certain uncertainty hovers about the way each man will decide. The final judgment, as Plato already saw, arose from this possibility of choosing for or against God..

Man was to have “dominion” over creation. By being what each thing is in itself, the cosmos and the earth were created as an arena in which man was to work out his life’s meaning. His final end, which was itself a gift beyond his natural powers, was not this world. But he was to work out his salvation in this world. In this sense, he did have something to do in this world that was so important that it affected his final transcendent end. This is the meaning of giving a cup of water or clothing to the thirsty and the naked.


What I propose to do here is to offer some reflections on issues found in the Encyclical. These observations are but “opinions”. They follow Francis’ own oft-repeated admonition to speak what seems valid. He once said that the only thing that would anger him is not telling him what we think.

1) The first issue is that of world poverty. First, the Encyclical begins an exhaustive numbering of things that the Pope holds to be polluted and decaying. These range from the oceans, to the rivers, to the land, to the forests, to the insect and animal species. Even though many species of plants, insects, birds, and animals disappeared before man was on the planet, all present species seem to have a “right” to exist and continue in their current form. How this right relates to human purpose is the point of controversy.

Poverty is the Pope’s main concern. He is interested in ecology for itself, but also and primarily because of the poor. He relates concern for resources with care for the poor even though theories of poverty alleviation often are at loggerheads with theories of resource preservation. Obviously, the status of the poor is an issue that goes back to the origins of Christianity and Judaism, with some overtones in classical and other cultures. The impetus for the very development of science and technology was often concern for poverty.

It was not unperceptive when Aristotle said that, if men invented machines to weave and do other things, slavery would disappear. Slavery itself was often justified because it was seen as necessary to do the messy things that civilization needed done to exist at all. Many scholars hold that the modern abolishing of slavery had more to do with machine invention than political ideas. It took mankind some time to realize that it should deal with poverty and an even longer time to figure out how it is done on a wide scale.

In the Pope’s view, the poverty of modern times, not its relief, is due mainly to uncontrolled capitalism. We should note that almost every modern ideology claims its moral justification from its claim to be the best way to help the poor. Certainly Marxism, socialism, capitalism, distributism, agrarianism, and liberalism make this claim, the need of which claim is probably itself of Christian origins. So the argument is not so much about whether the poor should be helped, but how are they to be helped not to be poor. Except for monastic vows, no theory exists with the explicit purpose of making people as poor as possible. Capitalism itself claims that it is the best way to help the poor; in fairness, this claim needs to be considered.

The primary cause of poverty, however, is not the mal-distribution of goods. If we confiscate all the world’s wealth tomorrow morning and distribute it equitably to everyone on earth, two things would result: 1) everyone would become poor; 2) within a short time, large portions of the goods distributed would end up on the hands of those who knew how to acquire, barter, and use them. If we mistake the real causes of how to make everyone not poor, we risk spreading poverty, not alleviating it.

The fact is that modern centuries have seen a gradual but increasingly effective alleviation of poverty as one society after another learned the hard way or the easy way what it takes to produce and distribute wealth. In the past several decades, the amount of poverty in the world has been rapidly reduced by what can only fairly be called capitalist presuppositions or imitations of them. We look for a means whereby new ideas can come into the economy. We must recognize that the real source of wealth is the human mind and creativity. We want an economy in which those who participate in it can by their talents and works earn their living. The Pope is rightly concerned with family and youth employment. The free market systems under laws and prudence, where they are allowed to exist, are the best and probably only way to aid the majority of the poor.

But the Pope evidently does not see this connection. The Chinese appear to have developed a totalitarian version of it. While acknowledging subsidiarity, Francis seems to prefer a state-engineered solution, a take-care-of-the-poor solution rather than an expanding economy solution. Actually, the whole of this encyclical seems to be telling us not to be wealthy; it is morally dangerous. The purpose of an economy is not to create wealth but to teach us how to live frugally and in very moderate ways. The Holy Father has much practical advice about turning down the heat, wearing jackets, drinking less water, and taking public transportation. He is leery of a society of abundance, which also has its problems.

We find little in Laudato Si’ that would indicate awareness that government is itself a major factor in causing and extending world poverty. It is not just a matter of corruption or bureaucracy, though that too is a serious problem. My point is not that the Pope does not have his own worthy opinions. But what, in fact, has been working for the purpose of poverty alleviation is not really discussed. Many other causes of poverty besides bad economics and politics, including religion, also need to be considered and acknowledged. The Pope’s concern with the poor is certainly in accord with the New Testament, which also reminded us that the poor would always be with us and chastised the man with one talent for not investing it. One suspects that the reason why we will always have poor has little to do with economics and politics, granted that faulty theories also cause poverty.

2) The second issue that I would like to touch on is what I call the “Robert Hugh Benson issue”. Pope Francis has several times referred with evident approval to Benson’s famous 1910 novel Lord of the World.[3] This is a most gripping novel concerning the end of this world and containing many scriptural overtones. It seems that the mysterious anti-Christ finally arises. He is an American senator from Vermont by the name of Feldstein. He has great eloquence, charisma, and a self-centered will to subject the world to himself. He gradually succeeds in gaining world power. Only the English Pope Sylvester and a few faithful cardinals remain willing to oppose him. Complete control is gained over all the citizens and nations. All the Brave New World features are now in place. The world finally ends outside of Jerusalem. It is an ideologically and ecologically perfect world but just the opposite of what God intended..

Many people would maintain that the anti-life, atheist, and anti-family beliefs are manifest in a world order that resembles what is found in theories being promoted in the UN, in the governments and courts of Europe and America. John Schnellnhuber, one of the commentators invited to present the Pope’s encyclical, advocates reducing the population of the world to less than a billion. The question is: What does Pope Francis make of this spirit that pushes these ecological and political movements that seek to control the world? Such anti-Christian forces work to establish a world-state in complete control of nature, population, and economy. The Pope clearly is opposed to abortion, single-sex marriage, and such deviations. But many who seem closest to him certainly advocate these Lord of the World concepts. However we evaluate it, it seems worrisome.

3) A third issue concerns Augustine. Augustine is not mentioned in the encyclical, though Bonaventure, Aquinas, Justin, Dante, Guardini, and St. Francis of Assisi are. Augustine thought that as the world came closer to its end there would be fewer and fewer believers. Pope Francis gives us a picture of a this-worldly ethic, an “ecological ethic”, as he calls it. The emphasis is not exactly on obeying the ten Commandments in any society of any time in any degree of poverty or wealth. It is on a list of violations of the planet that constitutes our salvific morality. The center of virtue is shifted from the individual person to the group, to the cosmos. One can imagine someone being perfectly in accord with the ecological ethic but not observing the Commandments.

The distinctions are delicate. Francis sees human and ecological disaster only if we continue pollution and neglect of the poor. He does not see it as a Feldstein-ish, anti-Christian world in which human beings are controlled for their own good by what are in effect demonic powers. His emphasis, here at least, is not so much salvation but making a world fit for the poor. The last words in Josef Pieper’s Hope and History read: “All attempts to construct a ready-made image of the future of historical man are burned by the grave discrepancy that (in the words of Konrad Weiss) ‘it is not humanity that is the goal of the Incarnation’”. I take this to mean that the purpose of the Incarnation was not some this-worldly order, either diabolic or pleasant.

4) A fourth issue is the notion of sustainability. [4] Briefly, the goal of ecological vision is posed in terms of creating a world that takes into consideration future generations. The consumption of goods must include future usage. We might note that no generation previous to ours ever seemed to worry about this issue. Usually, population control theses are posed in the light of estimates about available resources in relation to projected population sizes. What seems to happen is that when previous future generations come about, they will figured out some way to survive and even prosper. That is, human intelligence and skill are active elements in nature.

The question here is how do we know how many ages are left for us to plan for? And is there not reason to believe that a larger, rather than smaller, population will be the incentive to learn how to deal with human needs? We simply do not know how many generations there will be, what technology will be available to them, or even whether there will be a future generation. We know not the day or the hour. What we do know is that the earth, plus human intelligence on it, is adequate to provide for the human race as it is. This is why Augustine is important. We simply do not know how to calculate what future generations down the ages will need so that we can reasonably restrict our development now accordingly. It is incoherent to think that we can.

5) Something might be said on the nature of modernity. [5] Modernity, with all its eschatological overtones, has come to mean the effort to disassociate ourselves from any concept of a nature related to a creator. The cosmos and human life have no intrinsic order. We are thus free to make of ourselves or the things that exist whatever we want. We are our own saviors. One form of this “making” is to develop an inner-worldly salvation history that would propose the care of the ongoing earth as the principal occupation of mankind.

Human ecology as a theory of human control comes from this background and is species of it. It proposes as man’s end not a personal transcendent goal of each person, but an ongoing presence of the species over time. This is why individuals need to be controlled. Individuals are required to keep the species in existence. This approach means that, in the name of population stability or limits of resources, governments can eliminate what is considered inimical to the well-being (common good) of the species. Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, for example, proposes to solve the problem by simply eliminating the poor by abortion and other means. Since, unlike a creation theory, there is no personal destiny due to each person, the nobility of human action is reserved to those who devote their efforts to keeping the species in existence. Generally, this approach limits the number of people allowed to be born or to continue so that the “carrying capacity” of the planet is proportioned to the estimated number of people the planet can be said to support.

What the encyclical brings up is whether we can accept the limits imposed by this view and still retain, as Francis does, the dignity of the individual, existing person. A traditional Christian view would challenge this general background on two points. It would not grant that the size and growth of human numbers are unable to be met by the combination of available natural resources and human enterprise. [6] It would also point out that the final end of man is transcendent. The purpose of the earth is not the keeping of the species going on and on down the ages. Each person of the species exists for a transcendent purpose.

The moment of the completion of God’s purpose is not revealed, but it is definitely settled that it will happen. This awareness is really what Lord of the World is about. Heaven and earth will pass away. Concern for the natural environment of man is not wrong unless it is seen as a substitute for the transcendent purpose of man, the way many ecological theories do see it. At the end of time, one suspect, the planet will have plenty of resources left.


6) The encyclical of Pope Francis is filled with many other things to comment about. I liked the “small is beautiful” references. This smaller political and social unit was a thesis of the distributists as well as of Aristotle. Chesterton’s Outline of Sanity made the same case. The best books on economics in recent years are probably Jennifer Roback Morse’s Love and Economics and John Meuller’s Redeeming Economics. Morse points out why economists so often do not understand the family. Love, generosity, and sacrifice, as Benedict also pointed out in Deus Caritas Est, cannot be adequately explained in economic terms. Muller points to the importance of free distribution and disposal of goods by the much maligned consumer, who is actually a someone with a demand that people try to respond to. It is a market run not by the state but by the ones who purchase. What they do with their purchases becomes itself subject to their moral vision or lack of it.

7) The Pope often refers to what he calls a “throw-away society”. It is a catchy phrase. Yet, I wish this phrase could be dropped, however correct it is with regard to abortion. “Waste” is itself a natural resource. Francis often talks of wasting food. But much of the food that is “wasted” is due to laws designed to protect the health of the populace. Whenever large quantities of food has to be distributed to numerous people, whether in restaurants, cafeteria, mess halls, school dining facilities, we will have some waste because of likes and dislikes, and estimates of what is needed.

Markets for second-hand (and third-hand) clothing, cars, houses, furniture, books, you name it, exist. [7] What can be recycled usually is. Much of recycling is itself a waste. Yet, things are not really as bad as they might sound if we examine the waste industry, itself a source of jobs and profit. If there are abuses, they usually can be met and brought into order. If pollution exists in many parts of the world, it may need to be tolerated for a time, as the Pope indicates, but it is a manageable problem if it is addressed. We know how to deal with most waste, even nuclear.

Thus, we have the Encyclical on Environment. Millions of words are already spoken and written about it. It touches on issues that can be approached in many, often opposite, ways. There is nothing really “infallible” in this document, but it asks for and deserves critical reading. Whether it was wise to publish something at this time and on this subject is now a moot question. We have it and can read it.

In 1971, while still in Rome, I wrote an essay entitled “Ecology: An American Heresy?” that was discussed in Time magazine.[8] Almost half a century later, one can only laugh at that title. Though one of my favorite books is Chesterton’s Heretics, we do not talk much of heretics any more. But, thanks to Pope Francis, we sure do talk of ecology!


[1] See Robert Spitzer, S. J., New Cosmological Proofs for the Existence of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[2] See Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995).

[3] See James V. Schall, “The Lord of the World”, Inside Catholic, March 9, 2009.

[4] James V. Schall, “On Sustainability”, The Catholic Thing, April 28, 2015.

[5] James V. Schall, The Modern Age (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011).

[6] See James V. Schall, Human Dignity & Human Numbers (Staten Island: Alba House, 1971); Religion, Wealth & Poverty (Vancouver: Fraser Institute. 1990); “On Natural Resources”, The Catholic Thing, January 6, 2015.

[7] See James V. Schall, “Obsolescence”, Catholic World Report, January 19, 2015.

[8] James V. Schall, “Ecology: An American Heresy?” America, March 27, 1971; Time, August 23, 1971.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).

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