William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Pope Says Using Paper & Plastic A Sin

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If you’re a Christian, what do you suppose is the most pressing problem in the world today? The rapid fading of Christianity in the West? The dramatic increase in, and official approval of, sexual licentiousness and perversity? The wholesale slaughter of the unborn? The martyrdom and suffering of Christians in the Mid-East? That it seems likely many souls are being lost to Hell?

Or that there is a slight chance that because of mankind the global average temperature will increase by a few tenths of a degree or so, a change which will materially benefit some and perhaps faintly increase the financial burden of others?

Or maybe the chief concern is that there are no more trilobites, a kind of armored aquatic cockroach, and that Tyrannosaurus Rex, Archaeopteryx, Saber-toothed tiger and a great host of other animals which have gone extinct cannot therefore creep and crawl across the earth and “give glory to God”?

Opinions differ.

Pope Francis, God bless him, says the possibility of man-caused global warming, the disappearance of species, and, yes, the use of plastic and paper are among the most crucial matters facing the Church.

The Pope recently said it was a “sin” to “destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation,” and this might be so. But since well above ninety-nine-percent of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct, mercilessly destroyed by natural processes, it’s not clear that mankind has any special culpability.

Yet Francis said, “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.” Thousands? Millions (like the dinosaurs) are no longer giving glory to God. Should we weep for them? Predictions of species extinction are prone to preposterous exaggeration. At worst, man can be said to have contributed to the extinction of a few species, like the Passenger Pigeon, but we have also given support to others: there is no danger of lettuce, cows, and chickens going extinct. Don’t laugh: this is a serious theological point. Why?

We need to make some distinctions here, since it is impossible—not unlikely, impossible—for man not to influence his environment. People must eat, and our food is plants and animals, and plants and animals must be grown. To live, we must change the environment—all of it. Since everything on the earth is connected to everything else, for man to live means his effects will touch the land, waters, climate and every living thing. The question then becomes: what are the limits of our influences?

God loves people. God said to Adam and Eve, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” Filling the earth with people necessarily means people will and must change the earth for the benefit of people and not the benefit of “creation.” Yet many see the non-human creation as the equal, if not the superior, of man, and this accounts for these folks’ dislike of people and their efforts to curtail mankind’s number.

The Pope said, “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.” Filling the earth is not license to abuse it. One can certainly mistreat creation, and some do. Would that people abandon their materialist lives and philosophies, lead more peaceful existences, and turn their faces to God!

Lamenting this materialism, Francis said, “We have turned [the earth] into a polluted wasteland of debris, desolation and filth”. Sadly, this is hyperbole; worse, with local exceptions, it is false. Indeed, the world is better off for mankind now (materially, not spiritually) than it has ever been because of man’s efforts. The earth is greener: crop output is up amazingly. Fewer people go hungry. Storms are down in number and intensity. Inclement weather is not nearly as destructive as it once was.

All the horrors that await us under global warming are mere projections, and, so far, empty threats. Unfortunately for scientists, reality has not cooperated with their doom-laden predictions, which is ample reason to ignore their forecasts until they can produce skillful ones.

Yet for our alleged “sins” against creation, the Pope has asked Christians to undergo an “ecological conversion.” Instead of admonishing us “to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he demands we separate our refuse, plant trees, and car-pool.

We have to ask: will “avoiding the use of plastic and paper” really lead more souls to Heaven? Or will inculcating an ardent environmentalism cause even greater misunderstandings of man’s true relation to creation and to God?

36 Comments

  1. Let’s be glad that these admonitions from Pope Francis are not “ex Cathedra”, i.e. dogma. As Catholics we’re supposed to consider them carefully, but it was St. Thomas Aquinas who told us that our conscience (fully informed) gives the final dictate:

    “Every judgment of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always does moral evil. III Quodlibet, 27”

  2. What? You don’t think mankind is a plague upon the living Earth?

  3. Nice refreshing little piece pushing the limits of potential heresy here.

    Bob – Was St T Aquinas’ position on his flavor of moral relativism adopted “ex Cathedra”, into formal Catholic dogma?

    I.E., If one’s personal conscience is the ultimate arbiter, how isn’t that “moral relativism”?

    Here’s one popular definition: Moral Relativism (or Ethical Relativism) is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or PERSONAL circumstances. [emphasis added]

    Ole St T. Aquinas may be held in very high regard by the Church, even canonized, but does that mean that EVERYTHING he espoused is accepted doctrine?

    The bit about acting against one’s [personal] conscience always being moral evil seems fishy — like, at best, an oversimplification of something that ought have a number of qualifications.

    Consider, for example, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix — stripped of being a Catholic hospital due to an (one, ‘1’) abortion conducted there to save the mother’s life. Back then, in the urgency of the moment when time wasted was itself a death decision, the surgical team and a nun there at the time helped determine that the situation specifics allowed that particular abortion to save the mother’s life. The decision was not taken lightly and was thoughtfully considered in context of Church teachings on such trade-offs. Per the reference to T. Aquinas, that was the right thing to do in their minds.

    The bishop disagreed & his view have prevailed with Church support.

    At the time, this hit the news, as did that bishop’s letter [made publicly available], which looked to me like a case of wounded ego — how dare they make this decision, or any decision on the matter, without consulting him first. It sure looked to me, then, like he might have approved the abortion in the particular circumstances had they involved him. But they didn’t.

    So, there’s a case that looks like following St. T. A’s advice was proven wrong (the nun was excommunicated by that bishop). Or, the bishop had a case of “ego-eating-the-brain” and acted vengefully under the guise of pious adherence to doctrinal precepts. Based on the info published at the time [if one trusts the press], the bishop looked/s to me like he’s, very possibly, a scoundrel.

    But, if he & the Church were right on this, then that nun & the rest of them in following St. T. A’s quoted advice did morally right per St. T.A, but morally wrong per the Church. And if the Church is after all correct on this one, this is a case proving that St. T. A’s quoted advice is wrong.

  4. Thanks Matt
    Nicely stated.
    Fight the good fight.

  5. Ken, you’re quite correct in noting that while St. T.A.’s teachings are held in high regard, they are not (for the most part) taken as doctrine or dogma. Nevertheless, this particular precept I learned about in a class on moral theology taught by a Benedictine priest, so presumably it is not heretical.

    In your example, what the Bishop did was not necessarily what The Church tells us to do. The Bishop ignored the principle of “Double Effect”: an act which by itself is evil may be done if the intent is not to do evil but to do good–for example in self-defense, to kill someone, or in abortion to save a mother’s life. So the Bishop was clearly in the wrong.

    An example given in my moral theology class was that of a surgeon deciding whether to excise a cancerous uterus and thereby kill a fetus. His/her intent is not to kill the fetus but save the mother even though he/she knew the operation would kill the fetus. In Catholic moral theology intent is an important determinant in assessing the morality of a deed.

    Now I agree, that this can be carried to an extreme; for example, Nazis considered killing Jews, gypsies and defectives was a moral good, because it bettered the race. And where you go from there I’m not sure, other than to say they were deluded. I don’t think you have to say that following Aquinas leads to moral relativism, because an additional precept that Aquinas gives is the duty to learn about the nature and moral requirements of what one does. Which is to say, it is a moral requirement that your conscience be well-informed. And if you don’t fulfil that requirement, you may commit moral evil, even though your conscience tells you all’s well.

  6. Of course, almost everything that a human does on this planet is done to their own personal standard of “moral good”, so following one’s conscience first and foremost seems like incalculably poor moral advice.
    1 Cor 4:3-4: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”
    Rather contradicts a simple reading of Aquinas.

  7. The pope is presuming to speak to everybody. Not just Catholics. That is part of the problem, not saying he shouldn’t.
    He’s entered into the world of politics now. That, soon to be Trump territory will show the characters of both men in sharp relief if the Pope isn’t careful!

    Conscience is not fancy.

    If someone needs to be told they are allowed or supposed to listen to their conscience by any sort of official governing body, church or otherwise then there’s a hidden assumption in the person giving the permission.
    and something potentially weak in both advisor and recipient. I’m still referring to ‘official lines’ on conscience.

    They have encroached on the liberty of the individual to make up their mind. Which begs the question about what kind of person would require to be told officially that they may act on their conscience (other than as a matter of private reassurance?)

    We must ALWAYS act on our conscience, especially if it’s shouting at u. If this means breaking “the rules” so be it.
    It seems the authority giving the edict merges the important distinction between the two human experiences of my conscience and I want.
    The very confusion which leads individuals astray anyway and which they are attempting to strengthen.
    Nothing good can come from making a puzzle out of a simple matter.

    The rules are simple. It’s the practice which is difficult. Decisions of conscience may well be or turn out to be wrong which is inevitable because nobody is prescient
    Some prefer the rules to be complicated as possible,
    that only a few may understand. This is a problem.

    This was the error made by the Pope when he appointed ‘a few’ to determine that the difficult subject of climate change must be officially ratified and the masses told what to do.
    That’s even before power motives for this political line are introduced. I like to think the pope thinks he’s doing the right thing.
    He is acting on his conscience. He’s plainly wrong.

    Everybody is not necessarily one mind even if they are of one way of thinking. Just as one person’s guilt is not everybody’s guilt.

    Compassion and or guilt should inform conscience, not fear. The middle one must be entertained in proportionate measures and the last one has nothing to do with conscience.
    Fear should never be invoked by religious authority because it is simply aiming at the wrong motive for goodness and encourages only cynicism or self preserving action, understandably.

  8. ARB, I don’t believe I do everything I do is what my conscience tells me to do. I know I do things that I know are wrong. And even St. Paul said that. So is the tautology,” everything we do is that which are conscience tells us to do” correct?
    I don’t think so.

  9. Indeed, Dr. Briggs, but that commandment was not only given to humanity, it was given to all corporeal biological life. All living things alter their local environment to enhance their own survival. Those that do not do this fail to be fruitful and multiply; and thus get replaced. Integrated over this whole planet and its biological life, the material and chemical planet has been greatly altered by life and it must be so. Man was also meant to dress and keep the Garden; so not only do we alter the environment and must do so; we also must direct evolution, if you will. God help open the Pope’s eyes and ears.

  10. Judgement and conscience are separate.

  11. I have read the bible from cover to cover and I obviously forgot the verse about avoiding plastic and paper. Could somebody provide a citation?
    It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with what’s sinful.

  12. Ray,

    Keep in mind that Theology is often what allows agnostics to remain within the church.

  13. One problem: men only go where men go. We do not see ‘the earth’ in any detail, but rather see those necessarily tiny parts of the earth we happen to see.

    There are about 34 million square miles of tiaga forest – most of it untouched by man. (And, BTW, almost none of it where it is now a mere 12,000 years ago – those areas where under glaciers back then.) You could wander for years up there and never see a sign of other humans.

    Vast areas of the Amazon forest were clear-cut – a century or so before Europeans arrived. By the time they got there, it had grown back so much so that no one could tell the difference. The same thing is going on today – the net loss of Amazon rainforest is approaching zero, as the amount the forest reclaims is almost, today, equal to the amount being cut down. The trend is for there to be increasing net forest within a few years. Vermont and New Hampshire were farms 200 years ago; they are forests interrupted by occasional outbursts of quaint today. But all this takes place out of sight.

    On the other hand, if you drive up the east coast from New Jersey to Manhattan, you will see some ugly stuff. (The west side of the state is nice, at least the parts I’ve seen.) If your life revolves around the densely populated north east, and you stay on the roads, you might just come away with the possibly plausible but mistaken impression man is destroying the planet – the under 0.1% of it that happens to fall into your view seems kind of beat up.

    Of course, we could do better. In fact, we have been – the last century or so is the first time in human history that large-scale programs have been initiated to save animals and plants: we do have whales, and redwoods, and don’t seem likely to lose them.

    Anyway, perhaps the areas around Buenos Aires are particularly exploited and damaged? Archbishops and Popes don’t generally get out in the wilds much.

  14. Ray, I’m assuming you’re Protestant if you’ve read the Bible “cover to cover”. It’s in one of the secret Catholic parts of the Bible.

  15. “Lamenting this materialism, Francis said, ‘We have turned [the earth] into a polluted wasteland of debris, desolation and filth’.”

    In his opinion? Maybe. But I doubt he would want to live on Ohio of just 170 years ago. Seems Ohio started out as a polluted wasteland of debris, desolation and filth, in my opinion, anyway.

    From: http://www.historicperrysburg.org/blackswamp.htm

    Great Black Swamp:
    It is hard to believe that there once lay a terrible swamp beginning in the vicinity of South Boundary Street and running as far south as Findlay, Ohio, and east and west from the city of Sandusky nearly to Fort Wayne, Indiana…40 miles wide and 120 miles long. It was the Great Black Swamp, an oozing mass of water, mud, snakes, wolves, wildcats, biting flies, and clouds of gnats and mosquitoes. It was nearly big enough to cover the entire state of Connecticut.

    There was no end to the variety of sicknesses and maladies spawned from the mosquito-infested swamp. There was cholera, typhoid and milk sickness, but chief among them were malarial fevers generally known as “ague” for which people kept quinine powder on the table, along with salt and pepper, to sprinkle on their food.
    The fevers caused people to have chills, or the shakes, and according to a doctor of the time it took them from three to five years to get over it. The shakes occurred from about the first of July until the first frost. They took hold of people and literally shook them up. The doctor wrote that so violent were the chills and shaking that when they came on, the very bed and floor would rattle.
    The Black Swamp was Ohio’s last frontier, and beginning in the 1840s, it took several generations of determined farmers to drain it and make it the rich, flat farmland of today. What started it all was pretty much the idea of the medical profession which believed that it was bad swamp air that caused the fevers.”

  16. Bob Kurland,
    I think you are wrong in defining Double Effect as you do.
    “an act which by itself is evil may be done if the intent is not to do evil but to do good–for example in self-defense, to kill someone, or in abortion to save a mother’s life.”

    An act which is wrong by itself can never be done. This is not the principle of Double effect. Abortion simply can not be done to save mother’s life for in abortion the intent is to destroy the fetus. This is what abortion means.

    The principle of double effect applies when intent is save mother’s life. Then in the process of doing so, the fetus may be killed. Fate of fetus may be foreseen but the intent is never that.
    The principle of Double Effect has to be applied carefully. Not everything goes. The objective behavior must correspond to the subjective intent. It is not that I declare my intention to save mother’s life while I apply knife to the fetus.

  17. ‘We have turned [the earth] into a polluted wasteland of debris, desolation and filth’.”

    I see nothing about global warming but a simple statement of fact. This farming Briggs is so proud of has turned animals into protein-making machines lacking dignity.

  18. Pope Francis did not say using paper and plastic is a “sin”. This comes from Laudato Si, paragraph 211, where he writes

    “There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.”

    This is a list of potential ways individuals can contribute, in addition to public policy change. Eesh. Hardly just cause for a polemical post.

    Consider also the way plastics decompose.

    http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm

  19. @Bob Kurland:

    “In your example, what the Bishop did was not necessarily what The Church tells us to do. The Bishop ignored the principle of “Double Effect”: an act which by itself is evil may be done if the intent is not to do evil but to do good–for example in self-defense, to kill someone, or in abortion to save a mother’s life. So the Bishop was clearly in the wrong.”

    As Mactoul said, this is not correct. The principle of double effect (PDE) is a principle, or set of principles, that guide action where there are both bad and evil outcomes. Since the main moral injunction is “Do good and avoid evil”, there must needs be a rational, coherent way to adjudicate these cases. And one of the guiding principles of PDE, the first one really, is that it only covers actions that are at the very least morally permissible.

  20. Money today is usually paper or plastic.

  21. anon, and doesn’t the Good Book say, “Money is the root of all evil?”

  22. Bob,

    It certainly does not!

  23. Evil is a strong word. I think it is overused and people become desensitised with It’s being used as a fear word.

    Materialistic thinking doesn’t lead anywhere very fulfilling although material things can and do bring comfort and pleasure and peace among other things.
    Unless a person has given away all his living like a monk he can be considered to have some materialist attributes. So that is pretty well everybody barring a few.
    It is the drive of the materialistic person in society which often benefits the less able or the meek in society as well as the common or garden ordinary person who relies on a rich employer to put the bread on the table.

    Money is not the root of all evil but It is the illness which often attends it.
    There is no instruction in the bible not to give or receive charity.
    I don’t think you can have charity without money or it’s substitute.
    It’s not the money that’s the root of evil it is that people use it as a conduit for bad.

    Do away with money and you don’t destroy evil but you have taken away motivation, good or bad.
    Motivation is essential for the human mind.

  24. Joy —

    The Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil. I agree those words are there, but that is not what it says. Check it out.

  25. Jim, absolutely but the bible does mention the virtue of charity which entails money. There is a tacit assumption that charity is a fact of life. Nowhere is a socialistic ideal of equal sharing of misery implied. The need for Charity implies an unequal sharing of blessings.
    I wasn’t disagreeing with you at all.

  26. Joy, Fedako you are correct in some respects; the exact quote is

    “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” 1 Timothy 6:10 (KJV)

  27. G. Rodriguez, with respect to the “double effect”; I quote from the Catholic Catechism:

    “The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.” Catholic Catechism 2263

  28. Bob —

    No, we are 100% correct. And I know the verse well, hence my refutation of your obvious error, which you did not admit.

  29. Fedako, yes indeed you are 100% correct. I thought I showed that by quoting the verse, but I guess that wasn’t clear. +25 points for you, -25 points for my grievous error but + 5 for good intentions, so -20 points for me.

  30. Bob,

    “Joy, Fedako you are correct in some respects; the exact quote is …”

    No. You were not showing that we were correct. You were claiming we were. in fact, partially wrong.

    Not to be pedantic, but you tend to obfuscate (on purpose???) and then claim imprecise language. Hmmm.

  31. @Bob Kurland:

    “G. Rodriguez, with respect to the “double effect”; I quote from the Catholic Catechism:”

    You will have to clarify for me what you think your point is, because the quote just makes the point for me. To be explicit:

    “The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing.”

    The Catholic Catechism explicitly asserts that “legitimate defense” is *not* an “exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing”, precisely because the “murder of the innocent” is an intrinsically wrong act and therefore impermissible in any circumstances, with no exceptions. Which as I said, just makes the point for me.

  32. G. Rodriguez: you may be right. I’ll refer you to the web sources from which I made my inference (which be incorrect):
    http://sites.saintmarys.edu/~incandel/doubleeffect.html
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/double-effect/

  33. @Bob Kurland:

    For a very good account, albeit relatively brief, of the doctrine of double effect, you may want to read D. Oderberg’s “The Doctrine of Double Effect”:

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7SKlRTfkUieSXFTdDNnY0wybWs/edit

  34. Thanks, G.R. It doesn’t look all that short, but I’ll go through it.

  35. Wouldn’t using plastic help save the Earth from Global Warming by keeping oil from being burned?

    OTOH, that might not apply if the plastic is biodegradable.

  36. Mactoul:

    “I see nothing about global warming but a simple statement of fact. This farming Briggs is so proud of has turned animals into protein-making machines lacking dignity.”

    Tell us more on how cows and other beasts should be put above humans when accounting for needs. Especially to the Christians here.

    Then again, you look like a Leftist.

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