“A much briefer, more technically informed, and more theological accurate encyclical would have been more helpful”





“Laudato si’,” a Too-Argentine Encylical

The effects of Latin American “prejudice” on the solutions proposed by Pope Francis to heal the world, in the critical analysis of an Australian theologian and economist

by Sandro Magister



ROME, February 9, 2016 – “This is the magisterium of the Church. And the magisterium must be obeyed.” This is how the Argentine prelate Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the pontifical academies of sciences and of social sciences, replied bluntly last December 5 to the economists and scholars who had branded as baseless the environmentalist theses of “Laudato si’,” in a conference organized by the Acton Institute at the pontifical university of the Holy Cross.

Further below is a new critical analysis of the encyclical by Pope Francis, simultaneously theological and scientific, incorporating economics, politics, and environmental science.

The author is an Australian priest, Paul Anthony McGavin, chaplain of the University of Canberra, who combines the competence of theological and philosophical studies with thirty years of research in the field of economics and labor, as professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. His latest work, published in 2015, is the fruit of painstaking fieldwork and is entitled “Grappling Afresh with Labour Resource Challenges.”

The point of departure for Fr. McGavin’s critique of “Laudato si’” is the typically Latin American perspective from which Jorge Mario Bergoglio looks at human and environmental ecology and at questions like poverty, equality, and justice. A “prejudice” that blocks the rational analysis of phenomena and invalidates the solutions proposed.

Moreover – again according to Fr. McGavin – it is nothing other than Pope Francis’s formidable talent in weaving individual relationships, person to person, that acts as a veil on his capacity to examine more global, systemic questions concerning humanity as a whole.

As coincidence would have it, these criticisms are seeing the light a few days after Francis indicated for the umpteenth time precisely in the promotion of “a new” environmentalist “way of life” the response to the “relationship between poverty and the fragility of the planet.” This in the video (see photo) in which the pope illustrated the intention of the Apostolate of Prayer for the month of February:

> “Creyentes y no creyentes…”

The following extract is roughly half of the critical analysis of “Laudato si'” written by Fr. McGavin for http://www.chiesa, the complete text of which can be read in English on this other page:

> What’s wrong with “Laudato si'”?

Fr. McGavin is known to the readers of this website, who certainly do not see him as a “traditionalist.”

In his previous contribution, he proposed that the divorced and remarried might receive communion if authorized by their bishop with a canonical rescript, following an evaluation of their particular case:

> Hypothesis: A Rescript That Would Authorize Communion (24.11.2015)

And on previous occasions he has not failed to express and substantiate positive judgments of other aspects of the magisterium and personality of the current pope.


What’s wrong with “Laudato si'”?

by Paul Anthony McGavin

I generally pay attention to in-flight interviews by the Holy Father, because I’m interested to notice a text with lesser editing and without the voice of a “ghost writer”, as occurs with papal encyclicals. The conversations are often cursory, and sometimes tendentious. One paragraph in “Africa surprises us” text in “L’Osservatore Romano” of 4 december 2015 stood out for me. The pope was asked about the recent regime change in Argentina, and replied:

“I have heard some opinions, but really this geopolitical question at this time, I just don’t know what to say, really. I just don’t know. Because there are problems in many countries along these lines, but I really do not know why or how it began, I do not know why. Really, there are many Latin American countries in these changing situations, this is true, but I am not really able to explain it”.

I impute tendentiousness here, because the relationship of Jorge Mario Bergoglio with the Kirchner regime seems to have been conflictual, while the rise of a Macri regime is unlikely to accord with Bergoglio’s clearly left-of-centre worldview. The worldview of the pope and of his ghost writer(s) is played-out in “Laudato si'”, with the writers seemingly unaware of the dysfunctionality of their positions for their declared agenda. If only the pope had sustained an “I really do not know” line, “Laudato si'” may have been a more credible document.

“Laudato si'” clearly has a Bergoglio hand (for example, the most cited non-ecclesial text is “The End of the Modern World” by Romano Guardini, on whose writings Bergoglio commenced doctoral studies) but evidence of lack of integration suggests more than one ghost writer. What quite stands out in the document is its Latin American culture – reading the nations of Central and South Americas that arose from Iberian Catholic imperialism as “Latin America”. Broadly speaking, Latin America is notable internationally for economic backwardness and opportunistic behaviours that prevail under weak governance regimes.

The pope and his ghostwriters (and hereafter I shall simply say “the pope”) would not like to hear such a description of his cultural milieu, but sadly it is so. At the time of federation of the six self-governing British colonies that formed Australia in 1901, per person incomes in Argentina exceeded those of Australia. IMF international parity data for 2014 show Argentinian average incomes at 48% of those in Australia. The latest World Bank estimates of the skew in income distribution (the Gini coefficient) show for Argentina a skew in favour of higher incomes that is 39% greater than the estimate for Australia – that is, in relative terms “the poor” are more than a third worse-off in Argentina than in Australia. Taking the homicide rate per 100,000 persons, the latest UN data show the murder rate in Argentina to be 5 times the rate in Australia – that is, Argentina is a far more violent society.

In citing these data, my purpose is not to promote Australia (although I believe that our British-style governance model performs better than the alternatives), nor to disparage Argentina. My purpose is to show that the pope, in adopting of a prevalent Latin American ideological position, aligns himself in a way that inhibits a rational appreciation of instrumentality in addressing the issues for which these data act as surrogates – the human and environmental ecology and issues such as poverty, equality, and justice.

At points “Laudato si'” reads as a diatribe against the kind of rationality that leads to human betterment. The pope explicitly declares himself as opposed to an instrumental rationality: “An instrumental way of reasoning… provides a purely static analysis of realities in the service of present needs” (n. 195, also 106-109). He speaks against a “techno-economic paradigm” in terms such as “overwhelming”, “dominating”, and “the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy” (n. 53, 104, 109, 189). Yet it is an instrumental rationality that – for example – has led to increases in crop productivity, to reductions in pest damage to food crops, to public health measures securing quantity and quality life improvements for the most needy across the world. […]

“Finance” is another word where lack of comprehension leads the pope to disparagement. […] The pope thinks that “finance overwhelms the real economy” and that “finance” caused the global financial crisis (n. 109). But “finance” is but a component in the human institution that we call “the economy”, and “finance” is as “real” as the component of the economy involving tangible products (the “real economy”) – just as the “signs” of Jesus’ works in John chapter 6 are as “real” as the bread of which the crowd “had their fill”.

Nowadays, financiers speak of what they transact as “products”, even where the products may be only electronic record of transactions that have no “reality” in paper documentation. In institutional terms, the global financial crisis is perhaps best understood as resulting from the weakening of prudential financial regulatory provisions in the USA arising from the ideological economic paradigm of the Reagan administration (“Reagonomics”). If the kind of institutional provisions operative in the United Kingdom or in Australia had been in force it is unlikely that financial and property market adjustments would have been so dramatic and so widespread. In “Evangelii gaudium” the pope spoke against a preponderantly moralising message. Certainly, USA-style “sub-prime markets” are grounded on unsupportable domestic property aspirations (“greed”). But in public policy terms, the remedy is not moralisation, but good governance that sustains a sober prudential financial regulatory oversight.

Throughout “Laudato si'” the pope rails against “consumerism” (n. 34, 215), as something that “prioritizes short-term gain and private interest” (n. 184), where “markets… promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products [and] people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending” (n. 203). Peasants are “consumers”: they consume what they produce. In sophisticated production systems, consumption is mainly of traded goods and services (“goods” or “products”). The pope clearly favours less-specialised production activity and less market activity. What this entails is reduced overall output of goods and lesser access to varieties of goods.

Certainly, one tragically notices less enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life that often are accessed outside market systems (or, more correctly, in complementary manner with market systems). But values leading to changes in choices are more likely influenced by attractions and appeal than through preaching (as the pope argued in “Evangelii gaudium”, n. 35, 38). Widespread delivery to households of services such as power, water, and sanitation is possible only with wide engagement in market-traded activities that provide tax bases for public service deliveries – especially of education of the calibre needed to provide social mobility and more complex social and technical skills needed for advancements in standards of living. […]

The institutional and governance foundations for broadly improving human welfare are inadequately recognised in the pervasive impracticalities that characterise “Laudato si'”. The pope is against “desk-bound theology”. And my 20+ years of engagement in research and writing in practical and applied theology leads me to sympathise with the pastoral and practical theology instincts as expressed in “Evangelii gaudium”. […] But in “Laudato si'”, the pope is being “desk-bound”, or even “armchair-bound”, because he does not have a track record in strenuous intellectual and practical engagement in organisational-level and societal-level institutional frameworks for social advancement. In this encyclical he too often does not recognise that he “does not know”, and he speaks extensively on matters that he “does not know”.

Lack of expertise is marked in the pope’s central diatribe about “pollution”. The encyclical includes a line that I do not attribute to Bergoglio or his principal ghost writer, where we read in respect of the “human causes” leading to the warming of our climatic system: “It is true that there are other factors such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle…” (n. 23). This perception of climate change as complex is not sustained, and instead the pope sustains the line of journalists and of politicised bureaucrats who attribute climate change to a recent and single cause. Coming from a pope, this is strange. The Old Testament literatures clearly testify to the impact of man upon the environment and to experience of climatic variation, including extreme climatic variation.

The phenomenon of climate change may be increasing, but it is not new, and is not mono-causal. In the decade before federation, Australia experienced marked failures in crop and livestock production arising from agricultural and livestock expansions that reflected lack of long-period experience of climatic variation that is characteristic of the Australian continent. There have been similar recent experiences, and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology reports 2015 as the 5th hottest since records began in 1910; but also reckons that this was largely the result of a current, but subsiding, El Niño influence. […]

Environmental degradation is a matter of degree, and practical assessment of degree may not be straightforward or one-measure-only; further, global estimates may be inapplicable for certain geographical regions and for certain economic and social situations. Despite the pope’s nods to the “principle of subsidiarity” (n.157, 183, 196) and his words: “There are not uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations” (n. 180), the general tenor of the encyclical sustains an emphasis on simplistic generalities and universal solutions evoked as “enforceable international agreements” and “world political authority” (n. 173, 175).

Australia is an increasingly large exporter of fossil fuels, coal and natural gas, especially to China and India. Indian Prime Minister Modi pressed the case at the recent Paris Climate Change Conference that expansion of electricity delivery across the nation is crucial to improving human welfare outcomes for the Indian people, and depends upon increased fossil fuel use. Fossil fuels vary in their impacts: Australian coal exports are of relatively “clean” black coal, not “dirty” brown coal. The Modi government, like the preceding Singh government, understands that “clean energy” policies require funding – funding that is possible through higher incomes. This implies recognition that environmental policies are, in economic jargon, “superior goods” – which means that as incomes rise, so does both the demand for and the capacity to deliver “superior goods”, while the demand for “inferior goods” such as staple foods declines as a proportion of demand.

In brief, the populist journalistic portrayal – and often also portrayals by physical scientists – of an unfavourable relationship between economic growth and environmental health do not engage the complex economic and social dynamics involved in environmental management. In more sober estimation and with good governance, the relationship is likely to be positive – with economic growth being associated with cleaner environments. One can safely swim in most Australian waterways, while waterways in “developing” countries are typically heavily polluted.

The crucial phrase is “with good governance”. The pope thinks that “capitalism” and “consumerism” entail avarice and rapacity and environmental degradation. A more sober recognition identifies socialist regimes as associated with opulence for the ruling classes and diminished living standards for the general populace – for avarice and rapacity are pervasive human disorders. Environmental and human diminishments like those so often reported for China and Latin America are better understood as arising from weak, inefficient, inexpert, and corrupt governance. The pope weakly makes recognition that institutional failures are the main causes of undesired outcomes: the debilitating effects of “low levels of institutional effectiveness” are mentioned at n. 142, 179. […]

Is pope Francis therefore entirely wrong, or even heretical? No. Care for our world is a fundamental Christian precept flowing from the Genesis creation narrative (n. 66). The pope’s perspective is misaligned because he interprets that care principally in terms of “conservation”, in a static-state perspective, whereas the more prevalent Christian perspective of “stewardship” gives a dynamic perspective. St Luke is the greatest New Testament exponent of this, as argued in my research dissertation published as “Economic Language in Luke-Acts”.

Is the pope wrong in his justice concerns? No. The foundations of a Christian justice perspective are found in the Old Covenant (for example, Dt 24:14), where, in principle, distributive justice is clearly enunciated, as also is the inclusion of marginalised persons in production systems (for example, Lev 23:22) (n. 71). I share the pope’s premise: “Authentic human development has a moral character” and “the relationship between human life and the moral law… is inscribed in our [human] nature” (n. 5 and 115, 155). The problem with “Laudato si'” is not in the yearning for holistic human development in our created environment. The problem is the pervasive lack of technical proficiency in the relevant practical issues.

The pope is ambitious in seeking “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (n. 3). But this raises particular perils, because this leads him to appeal to common human understandings, including populist ones. The hazard of his appeal is that common human understandings cannot provide a remedy. From the arguments that I have briefly outlined it may seem that I think that less-common and more-complex technical understandings provide a remedy. That would be a mis-perception. My life has not simply been as a professor of economics with a specialisation and extensive fieldwork and publications in human resource development. I have been and am a Catholic priest – and a priest because of deep conviction that man cannot remedy himself.

Where the precept of sin in the human condition is not in the forefront, various versions of human self-improvement or Pelagianism prevail. This danger is inherent in “Laudato si'”. I was relieved to see the word “sin” appear in the second closing prayer of the encyclical, because the overall appeal of the encyclical is to common understandings – populist common understandings – that seem to reinforce a simplistic humanistic approach to “care for our common home”.

There are several acknowledgements in the encyclical of the “complexity” of the ecological and social systems and that “multiple causes” are operative, with the consequence “that solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming” the issues that are engaged (n. 63). But these recognitions do not tilt the weight of the encyclical from an overall simplistic approach that draws upon and promotes populist and ideological understandings. From a theological perspective, those outside the Church who read the encyclical are likely to be affirmed in humanistic understandings that do not lead to the worldview presented in the Gospels. From a more comprehensive intellectual perspective, those outside the Church (and inside the Church) who read from technical competence are likely to dismiss the encyclical as Franciscan romanticism.

In brief, I think that this initiative of pope Francis proceeds from good intent, and from a man who sees himself as “a sinner”. But his restricted cultural and educational background and his personality has a genius in person-to-person relations that nevertheless poorly equips him to engage in generalities – with “humanity”, rather than persons, and with abstract and systemic understandings that are necessary for rational approaches to problems that are of a different order than those of the pope’s genius, and perhaps also of a different order than the pope’s mandate.

My estimation is that a very different, much briefer, more technically informed, and more theological accurate encyclical would have been more helpful, and would have provided a better platform “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home”.


Translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.


About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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