Interview with Dr. David Cloutier—Part 2: B16, Wendell Berry, and reckless economies

Part 1 │ Part 2 │ Part 3

The interview with Dr. David Cloutier continues. In it are more insights into his new book Walking God's Earth as well as a decisive essay comparing Benedict XVI with Wendell Berry. Yes, B16 and Berry. (It turns out that both are concerned with people's consumption of the planet and of each other.)

CE: In a perfect world, how would a parish use Walking God’s Earth? What sort of questions or discussions would you like to see take place?

Dr. Cloutier: Great question. There are two main things that I’d like to see. One, I would like to see parish communities start developing a shared commitment to these issues rather than simply thinking about them in terms of isolated individual actions. The shared witness of the community are very important on these issues.

Many of the things that the Church has done well are things that the Church does communally. That’s to say that are organizations within the parish—there is a kind of activity in the entire parish—that orients the entire parish to a certain way of living.

For instance, most parishes have numerous ways in which they provide charitable giving to the poor. Some parishes may be more radical than others, but even your average, middle-of-the-road parish is going to have three, four, five different things that the parish is doing in a coordinated fashion to help the poor—special collections, a poor box for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a monthly service at the homeless shelter. It’s just understood. Nobody would ever question why we’re doing this! Everyone just assumes that this is part of who we are.

I’d like to see the same things happen on environmental issues. That it’s just sort of assumed this is who we are. That there will be parish programs, parish practices, that are shared that embody this commitment.

So that’s one thing: that it not be just an individual thing but that the parish community see environment protection as integral to its identity.

The second thing: I would like the Church empowered to a shared political witness on this issue. I think in the United States, meaningful action on environmental issues is very difficult in the current political atmosphere. We simply don’t get meaningful progress toward sustainability.

If you look at American history you realize that when these kinds of impasse situations come up, there needs to be some kind of external force that shifts the party alignment. We’re set up in a two-party system, and so the two parties have to build groups within their party in order to get a majority. And what groups they each have shifts. For instance in the early part of the last century in the United States the south was very important to the Democratic Party. Now it’s integral to the Republican Party.

Right now, unfortunately, a kind of anti-environmentalism is integral to the Republican Party. I don’t think it has to be that way—and I don’t think it was that way fifteen years ago. It could be a consensus issue. The Clean Air Act was passed under [Richard] Nixon. Figures like John McCain had progressive environmental records. I don’t think that in the 1990s there was the kind of pressure on Republican leaders to deny the existence of global warming. And so the environment is potentially a consensus issue, but right now that’s blocked. I think, then that this is a place where a shift in the Church’s understanding of the environment could bring a meaningful shift to the larger political landscape—it could become more of a consensus issue that environmental issues must be addressed, even if we argue over how.

I’m always hesitant about making it sound as if the Church is a vehicle to achieve secular political ends—of any sort. That is, the Church is our primary community identity. And so the Church shouldn’t be instrumental to achieving certain things for the state. However on environmental issues, state action is clearly part of any solution, and the Church could be a meaningful force in shifting the political dynamics to make state action more possible.

CE: That's a fascinating conversation for me as a state regulator, who tries to pay attention to how my faith impacts what I do at work. Here I think of what Benedict XVI stressed in Deus Caritas Est, that the Church maintains a sacramental role in the greater society. It is not looking to replace government.

But this gets to another work of yours I’d like to discuss. The two goals you’d like to see come from your book—the Church’s communal response and how that could change the nature of the wider society—they both seem to resonate with your thoughts in a piece you had in the journal Communio, back in 2010, in which you connected what Benedict XVI was up to in his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, and the writings of American author and farmer Wendell Berry. Tell us about that—what was it about Benedict XVI’s teachings in Caritas in Veritate that you found so important? And why the connection with Wendell Berry?

Dr. Cloutier: Well, I have been reading Wendell Berry since I was introduced to him in graduate school. Now I grew up in Chicago. I don’t have an agrarian bone in my body. [Laughs] The only farm I saw growing up was the farm in the Lincoln Park Zoo.

But I found Berry compelling from the first time I read him. He had put his finger on something very profound and challenging. But of course, one of the difficulties when reading Berry is how to think and practice like Wendell Berry when you don’t live on a farm. Since I never considered for more than thirty seconds that I should live on a farm [laughs] I knew I needed to have another response—and that that was okay. But how one figures out that response can be difficult. So in that Communio piece I was trying to use Caritas in Veritate to frame a broader understanding of how Wendell Berry’s insights could be appropriated.

CE: One of the things I enjoyed about that piece was in learning that Berry, like Benedict XVI, made direct connections between today’s environmental issues and contemporary sexual issues—which many people seem to overlook in Benedict. Tell us why you saw this as so important? What does that offer the world?

Dr. Cloutier: First, when I read Caritas in Veritate, I knew I wanted to connect it with Berry because what Benedict XVI was saying about that link is what Wendell Berry was saying. Berry’s extended essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community” showed that he saw the destructive financial and business economy that we have and the destructive sexual economy that we have were really of a piece with one another. And Benedict was clearly saying the same thing. So that connection seemed very important.

To address more directly about why that’s important, I think it’s unrealistic to imagine the waste of our sexual economy without looking at the waste of our larger business economy. By waste here I mean the amount of time, the amount of pain, the amount of broken relationships that our sexual economy produces—the amount of preoccupation of people from the time when they’re fifteen to the time when they’re thirty, going through thirty different relationships, all with different kinds of drama, and having endless conversations with their friends about these relationships, and then watching endless movies and listening to endless music that narrate and re-narrate these relationships—in often contradictory kinds of ways—it comes to an enormous amount of—and I don’t know how else to put it—waste.

And what I’ve just described is merely the most benign part of the waste. Of course the destructive part of the waste is abusive relations, unwanted children, abortions—all of these kinds of things that come out of a recklessness of a sexual economy. It’s reckless.

CE: How so?

Dr. Cloutier: It seems to me that we could not afford this reckless sexual economy except for the fact that we have this reckless business economy. If we’re serious about changing the reckless business economy than we had better be serious about changing the reckless sexual economy. Because if we try to change one without the other, it won’t work.

What I would say to conservatives is that the desire to have the kind of destructive capitalism that we have and to somehow assume that a large majority of people will not lead pretty reckless, wasteful sexual lives is just … unrealistic. It doesn’t match with the reality that most people typically experience.

On the flip side, people who want to believe that we can tolerate the reckless sexual economy while reining in the larger business economy, and making that environmentally sustainable, have not figured out the extent to which real stewardship requires discipline—at a fundamental level. And I make this point in the Berry article. When I say discipline, I mean discipline in work, discipline in raising children, discipline in thinking through mature relationships. I don’t see how you can expect the kind of discipline that is necessary for environmental sustainability to come about without some kind of discipline in the sexual economy.

The difficulty is that the vast majority of people seem to be on one side of this divide or the other. They want to tolerate—or even embrace—the recklessness of one but then criticize the recklessness on the other side. Still, making clear that connection is challenging. I stated it in that answer, but actually showing it would take a lot more than what I just said.

CE: I think just raising the issue—just underlining that link—is an important beginning.

Dr. Cloutier: Benedict XVI makes the connection very crystal clear on a theoretical level or theological—on an abstract level—when he says in that passage in Caritas in Veritate that it’s absurd, basically, to think that there is some kind of natural order of the environment without thinking that there is a natural order of the human person—and especially the human person’s bodily biology.

I find it difficult to know how you argue against that. It seems obvious to me that if you’re going to have an ordered account of nature that it needs to be a thorough account. How can you argue that there is order in nature and have human beings exempted?

But having said that, that’s a theoretical account. What’s needed in addition is a more practical account that goes beyond the language of nature—a more fleshed out depiction of environmental destruction that happens, for example, because of broken families.

CE: And it’s asking a lot of people to have them give up something that they value most—whether it’s consuming the resources of the natural world as much as you want or consuming each other as much as you want.

Dr. Cloutier: Right. Well put.

CE: Then we have Pope Francis beginning to do just that. In his first major statement on the environment in June 2013, he talked about a “culture of waste”—that wove together both the environmental issues and human life issues—the family, especially.

Dr. Cloutier: Right.

CE: And this gets us to, I think, the Synod on the Family taking place as we speak and while at the same time, for many of us, there is great expectation about a planned environmental encyclical. You quoted Berry that “a family doesn’t just stay together out of sentiment. It is certainly more apt to stay together if the various members need one another or are in some practical way dependent on one another.” How might this be related in terms of Pope Francis’s agenda—given that the synod is dealing with, to a large extent, the brokenness of so much of the social order and of so many families and an environmental encyclical would be dealing with so much brokenness in the social and natural world? What are we seeing now in the life of the Church?

Dr. Cloutier: I think it’s significant that Francis, being the Third World Pope, sees the connection between those problems. We are apt, in a North American setting, to see a set of problems in a different way than Francis does coming from Buenos Aires. For him, the destructiveness of the global economy is just obvious—it’s just so obvious—because he’s lived in the underside of it. He sees that it’s not just destructive financially—materially in terms of poverty—but he also sees obviously the destruction of the wasting away of traditional family structures. And he sees those two things going on together. And so I think for him, understanding that Third-World perspective is really key to seeing why he is able to see these connections.

I think that the difficulty we can have, in the North American context, in seeing these connections –well, let’s put it this way: The people living in Manhattan aren’t living in Zanesville, Ohio. Now, what does that mean?

CE: That’s a good line—

Dr. Cloutier: —well, of course I’m talking about cities in general. I’m not just coming down on Manhattan—you could say Chicago, too! The difficulty is that the economic and sexual “realities” that people think that they see in Manhattan are very different than the “realities” that people think that they see in Zanesville, Ohio.

And in some ways, both those perspective are very partial and distorted compared to Francis’s perspective from a Third World city. I think, if we want an interesting conversation, we would take Francis’s perspective and say in some ways it’s much more real and comprehensive than the perspective of the person either in Manhattan or the person in Zanesville.

I think the person in Zanesville—to stereotype—is very concerned with familial breakdown because of exactly the kinds of problems that they see around them and that the person in educated, elite Manhattan is ironically more likely to see people living ordered, sexual lives—at least when they grow up. So they may not be living ordered, sexual lives when they graduate from a prestigious college, but by the time they’re thirty, they do!

The most convincing portrait of this is Charles Murray’s Coming Apart [The State of White America, 1960-2010, Crown Forum, 2012]. Charles Murray is not always the best thinker ever. But in that book he quite persuasively suggests that the white educated upper class and the white working class look at the world so differently is because in fact they live in radically different worlds – in 1960, he contends that the GM CEO and the assembly line worker still had a lot of material and cultural overlap, but now the worlds are much more separate.

As for Francis, we’ll really need to see how the Synod on the family and the environmental encyclical look from a realistic economy. And we [in North America] don’t live in a “real” economy. Not the person in Zanesville, Ohio and not the person in Manhattan. We live in a kind of illusion—an environmental illusion, a sexual illusion. And I think Francis, coming from Argentina, is much closer to the reality.

Jump here to Part 1 or Part 3.

If you like Catholic Ecology,
you’ll love…

A Printer's Choice

The sci-fi novel with a Catholic twist.

A Printer's Choice

Learn more

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.