The Spectacle Blog

This Won’t Play Well With the Base

By on 12.15.09 | 4:07PM

Pope Benedict XVI has gone and done it:

Industrialized nations must recognize their responsibility for the environmental crisis, shed their consumerism and embrace more sober lifestyles, Pope Benedict said on Tuesday.

Benedict has always seemed sympathetic to environmentalists and has never shied away from urging Catholics to stewardship. And his economics, while not being socialist by any means, tend to irk free marketeers. In general his views on such matters are hard to categorize. But in this latest pronouncement, he has made certain claims that will be hard for free market pope-fans to square with their beliefs about typical environmentalist policies. For instance,

Speaking of the need for all nations to address the issue of energy resources, he said:

"This means that technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency."

And:

"It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view."

While these comments will certainly elicit the usual backlash from the right and crowing from the left, I think that this underscores the point that the pope's views, in general, do not fit well into the usual political categories. In America, for sure, calling for "sober lifestyles" in light of environmental concerns resonates well with people on the economic left, who tend to abhor the pope's stance on the social issues of the day. And it will outrage or upset folks who are small-government, who are also to an large extent in line with the pope's views on social issues.

To the second group I would say, however, that whenever the pope says or does something impolitic, it is usually the case that his PR has failed him and needlessly exposed him to criticism from one side or another. In this case, issuing a broad statement that seems to endorse the motivations for cap-and-trade-type meauses while the Copenhagen meetings are ongoing seems like a broadside against those who oppose such schemes. I doubt that it was meant in that way, though.

In general the pope is simply not as politically attuned as the press would have him, or as a Rowan Williams is. He tends to think of issues in academic or theological terms, or else as they relate to the responsibilities of leading the Church.

When prompted to weigh in on matters like the environment, as he was by the occasion of the Copenhagen meetings, he puts his own pastoral spin on it instead of merely endorsing one set of opinions or another. Although his quotes above would seem like clear-cut approval of a carbon tax of some kind, it might be a little more complicated than that. He emphasized the moral dimensions of addressing the problems:

"Our present crises -- be they economic, food-related, environmental or social -- are ultimately also moral crises, and all of them are interrelated."

He called on all people to "move beyond a purely consumerist mentality" so that they could "rethink the path which we are traveling together" and adapt "a lifestyle marked by sobriety and solidarity" between the haves and the have nots.

That actually sounds closer to an appeal to personal responsibility than to governments and top-down solutions.

Remember, the pope's concern for AIDs-stricken Africans led him not to recommend foreign donations of contraceptives but instead to promote chastity. For this he was excoriated by the left -- to the left's embarassment. If, similarly, he worries about the environment and accordingly lands on a nuanced position, the right should make sure not to repeat the left's mistake.

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