16 November 2015

Laudato si ... Oecologizandum est in Fide?

Some weeks ago, a kind person pointed out that I could no longer evade reading Laudato si, since the normative Latin text was now available. Thank you! I had been very busy recently; but have now got round to looking at it. Goodness, isn't it long? But it will substantially augment the Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis, since it is full of neologisms. They are mainly simple latinisations of common modern terms based on Latin or Greek roots, such as oecosystema. I approve of this; I fundamentally disliked the preference of the Lexicon to favour clumsy and prolix circumlocutions rather than grasping the nettle of creating servicable neologisms. I am perhaps a little less happy about those terms which mingle Latin with Greek, but, as the Duke of Wellington put it, In for a penny, in for a pound.

One such hybrid neologism is Biodiversitas (paragraph 32 and others). I homed in on this section, because a little while ago the retiring Vice-Chancellor, in his final October Oration, revealed that this University (I'm not making this up) had produced its own brand of genetically modified mosquito called OxitecGM. These "insects are incapable of reproducing effectively. The idea is that if they are introduced into the wild, the native disease bearing mosquito population will collapse", says he. Does this invention constitute an increase of biodiversitas by the addition of a new species, or the possible reduction of biodiversitas because of the threats it poses both to the present mosquito population, and to the well-being of the Malaria bug?

I wonder how lucid other readers found this section of the encyclical. It seemed to me to lack a clear explication of exactly what the term means; and of any basic or unifying reason why biodiversitas is a good thing. Sometimes the reason given for the preservation of a species seems aesthetic: our descendants will otherwise miss some types of beauty which we enjoy (but if Beauty is subjective, how do we know what they will find beautiful?). Sometimes it appears to be suggested that species simply glorify God sua existentia. (The Oxford zoologists who have created OxitecGM seem unaware that malarial mosquitos, and Malaria itself, glorify God by their mere existence.) Sometimes thoroughly utilitarian reasons are given: the most improbable species may, to put it baldly, on some unforeseeable occasion be of use to pharmaceutical firms (or biological warfare manufacturers?).

Does the Roman Pontiff mean that some species are justified by one reason, others by a different reason? So that we identify which reason justifies which species and make pragmatic decisions accordingly? Or do all the reasons have to be valid in each case? Or does the sua existentia argument cover everything? God made it, whatever it is, so it glorifies him by its mere existence, so it is ipso facto good, period? If this last, how does Pope Francis expect to persuade non-theists, who are among those addressed by this document, to favour a biodiversitas which appears to be based upon Christian, or at least theistic, dogma?

As well as the Mosquito and Malaria, what, for example, about the smallpox virus? Does biodiversitas require that it should be spread liberally all around the world, to be widely experienced by large numbers of humans? So that our descendants can admire its beauty? I gather that it has now been exterminated except for small specimen amounts of it kept in conditions of the highest security in two laboratories, one in Russia, one in North America. Do those minute specimen amounts function satisfactorily for the purpose of 'glorifying God' by their mere, minimal laboratory existence? If so, what does this phrase actually mean? The campaign for biodiversitas would seem to be reduced to something very like Philately ... doing ones best to put together and to preserve a complete set of all the different varieties of the Tuppenny Blue, or whatever. Except that God doesn't command us to collect postage stamps. Or will that be the next development of the Papal Magisterium?

Because if Darwin's theory of evolution is factual, we live in a world in which some species are continually going out of existence for reasons of 'Natural' Selection, giving place to other evolving species. Is it really our duty to secure, by hook or by crook, the survival of specimen samples of all the 'naturally' disappearing species so that they can for ever fulfill all or at least one of the purposes which the Holy Father has listed? That seems a new and onerous moral obligation to place upon our race. And many non-Catholics might wonder how exactly the Roman Pontiff has the right, despite Dignitatis humanae, to impose moral obligations motu proprio upon the human race, and imperiously to demand submission. And I would wonder why it, and the whole concept of moral obligation which it appears to drag along with it, are not also imposed upon every other species. Centipedes, for example, and Great White Sharks. Or are we supposed to educate them all in the morality of the new ideology? Gosh, what a job!!

Or is it to be accepted that 'naturally' some species displace others ... that's 'natural' so that's OK ... so that our only obligation is to be careful ourselves not to cause the disappearance of other species? But why should that be? Are we not a species, ourselves part of the oecosystema, part of what's 'natural'? You could get round this by invoking the Christian doctrine that Man is a radically different kind of species totally set apart from all the others, in the mind and dispositions of the Creator in whose image he is made; but, once again, the atheists and agnostics to whom the Encyclical is also addressed would be justified in calling "Cheat" if one thus arbitrarily smuggled in Catholic Dogma in order to leap across such a dodgy logical gap.

I must confess that I am completely at sea in all this stuff. As Callimachus didn't say, of ideologopoia there appears to be no end. Perhaps I'd better just leave it to megabrains such as Dr Dawkins and Papa Bergoglio. If the ideology (or theology or philosophy?) of Oecologia is all as hard going as this, I think I'll stick to recondite liturgical and Classical minutiae. Tally Ho for the lacunae in Henry Bannister's Reichenau Fragment and the function of the digamma in the latest Sappho papyrus. And what was the Sequence of Colours in the diocese of Nidaros in the late 1380s?


Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts: Hilaire Belloc's little quatrain comes to mind, especially in regard to the smallpox virus (whose substitution into line 3 even scans!)

Secondly, the extinctions now in progress, and at a rapidly increasing rate, are very largely down to the behaviour of one species alone, viz. us. The dodo, the auk and the passenger pigeon did not disappear because they did not fit their ecological niche: they did fit; only we, the new predator, came along, and we didn't exterminate them out of need, but in the pursuit of recreation - because they were so easy a prey. Now the South American rainforests are falling beneath the axe, to supply the needs of industrialised societies, and who knows how many species are disappearing with the trees? This brings a moral dimension, it seems to me, into the ecological argument.

Thirdly (I can't count), leaving morality aside, and appealing to enlightened self-interest, we do not know enough, and probably never will know enough, about the myriad interconnections and interrelationships between species and environment, to risk removing or modifying any part of the chain of being at our own good pleasure(the butterfly effect). Inevitably, when human beings start interfering with the setup, the Law of Unintended Consequences starts to operate. Cane toads, for example. Bilharzia in Africa. BSE, anyone?

Liam Ronan said...

What a great penance you have taken upon yourself, Father. Surely, by the Grace of God, you will merit a plenary indulgence.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear Charlesdawson

I thought I had dealt with your "Secondly". Did you notice what I wrote?

John Hunwicke

Deacon Augustine said...

Fr., I have been inspired by your comments on biodiversity to set up a conservation charity for the protection of the Common Cold Virus. I think its quite despicable that so much in the way of financial and human resources are being poured into efforts to bring about the extinction of this innocent organism. Hope you don't mind if I advertize the relevant Gofundme page on your blog so that similarly concerned eco-warriors can contribute their hard-earned cash to this worthy cause?

OTOH, I did take a quick look at this teaching document from the Holy Father, and discovered that it wasn't a teaching document at all, but only a "dialogue":

LS n. 3. "...In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home."

Apparently, therefore, it contains no magisterial weight whatsoever (the theological note of a teaching document being made apparent by the form and force of the words used to convey that teaching etc. etc. etc.), and so I can safely look forward to the CCV's extinction with a clear conscience.

Little Black Sambo said...

I suppose there is some weight in the aesthetic argument for the reason implied in your statement: that we don't know what will be considered beautiful in the future. We don't know what will be found useful in the future, either; I imagine there are already many examples of apparently useless or positively dangerous species coming in handy.

Little Black Sambo said...

O I have just noticed that my points were covered by Charlesdawson in his "Thirdly".

Belfry Bat said...

Beyond humanity, there are several populations we are bound to keep for as long as we want Sacraments: triticum and vitis particularly, as well as the tiny critters that support fermentation. It might also be polite to maintain some ruminant artiodactyls, for the sake of them as don't eat any other beasts.


The story about mosquitos bemuses me, for lo! Mules have been bred for centuries, and must surely have often escaped, and yet there are still wild horses.

Jacob said...

This talk of biodiversity and the genetically modified mosquitoes reminds me of a science fiction story I once read in a magazine.

The plot of the story is that a group of Christians living a future with advanced technology shun that technology and settle on a distant planet so that they can lead subsistence level lives. The climate where they settle is tropical and there is no respite from the flies.

The Christians in the story are stereotypes for whom cleanliness is next to godliness. When the Christians see the aliens of that planet whom they attempt to convert, they are revolted by the fact that the aliens are not bothered by the flies crawling all over them.

The protagonist woman of the story has a confrontation with a female scientist of the scientifically advanced human Federation and the protagonist challenges the scientist to actually do something for the aliens by using the Federation's technology to remove the flies. The scientist is goaded into it.

Eventually, a few years down the line, the protagonist notes how the flies are decreasing more and more, but also how the aliens are as well. The protagonist is confronted by the scientist who explains that by removing the flies, the Federation has destroyed the aliens' means of reproduction, consigning them to eventual extinction unless the Federation can figure something out. End of story.

So playing God by removing disease spreading mosquitoes probably isn't the smartest idea as it will no doubt have unintended consequences.

Stephen said...

Here's an interesting twist for you. A urologist I know posits that, if indeed Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection is true and operative, then any gene, chromosome or any other natural element of our DNA that could be considered a genetic inclination to same-sex attraction would have been naturally selected out of the gene pool. Ergo, same-sex attraction is then either self-willed, induced by nurture, or a combination of both, but it cannot be a function of our genes without undermining the Theory of Natural Selection.

Highland Cathedral said...

I also found the Pope's understanding of Economics leaves much to be desired. (When it's possible to make a reasonable guess as to what he's talking about, that is.)

John said...

C'mon, Charlesdawson; don't leave me hanging. Which Belloc quatrain? I've rummaged through my admittedly small collection of Belloc and not found the relevant verse. All I can think of off hand is Ogden Nash:

God in His wisdom
Made the fly
And then forgot
To tell us why.

Not quite on point but my train of thought is so often side-tracked.

Anonymous said...

@ Fr Hunwicke: Er, yes Father, I have read what you wrote several times, both before commenting, as is my wont, and after.

@ John: the Belloc I was thinking of has been attributed to several wits, which may possibly have misled you: it runs, "He prayeth best who loveth best/All creatures great and small;/The streptococcus is the test;/I love him most* of all."
*some versions substitute "least" here.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Right, Charlesdawson: Thank you. It is the ingrained schoolmaster in me that made me wonder why, when I had, I thought, demolished your "secondly" so very neatly in my original paragraph "Or is it ...", that you came back with a statement of that position which made no sort of reply to my demolition! But It is salutary to be humbled ...

John Hunwicke

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr Hunwicke, thank you for your most gracious response.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Jeepers, sorry: I posted a few minutes ago, elsewhere in this blog, noting that some comment from you, Father, on the recent Latin publication of "Laudato si" would be welcome. Now I find that you HAVE duly commented.

With apologies,

Toomas (Tom) Karmo