It is a very windy document. It would have been much better at half the length. It's repetive, and consciously so. From the opening chapter:
Although each chapter will have its own subject and specific approach, it will also take up and re-examine important questions previously dealt with.... These questions will not be dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again.
I'm not so sure that was a good idea. I found much to applaud in the first half or so, but long before I reached the end I was impatient and felt that little was being added.
As we all know, the most immediately notable thing about the encyclical was its highly politicized reception: the left was jubilant, far too many on the right dismissive and even contemptuous. Both did it a disservice. The left immediately wielded it as a weapon against the right, which naturally encouraged the right to find fault with it. Now that I've read it, I have to say that many of the more strident critics on the right look like fools. There are plenty of specifics here that one might argue with, but to dismiss its principles is wrong for Catholics, and a mistake for anyone. And by the way, it explicitly invites debate, so a Catholic needn't feel hesitant to disagree with it on matters of fact, or about the wisdom of this or that specific proposal. Daniel Mahoney, writing in National Review, has the best reaction from a Catholic conservative that I've come across, though I'm sure there are others--which doesn't mean that I agree with everything he says.
Mahoney says that Chapter 3, "The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis", is the strongest part of the encyclical, and I agree. To do it justice would require quoting long stretches, but here's a small sample:
It can be said that many problems of today's world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.
I have to wonder if some of the noisiest people on both sides have even read it. The thing that's gotten the most attention is its commitment to the cause of combating "climate change." But that's really quite a small part of the whole, and an unessential one; that is, you could remove every mention of climate change without in the least diminishing the force of its call for environmental responsibility, for which it makes a case very persuasive on both religious and common-sense grounds.
My biggest reservation about it is that it doesn't really connect physical ecology and cultural ecology very effectively, especially the moral ecology involving sex and the family which has been clear-cut in the past fifty years or so. The passage quoted above, for instance, would seem to lead naturally in that direction, but is in fact followed by a caution that the "model" described "[shapes] social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups." Perhaps, but I think the more significant and powerful shaping is toward a general preference for ease and comfort over more substantial goods. I am less worried about "certain powerful groups" than about the character of people in general.
The encyclical says some strong things about the connection between environmental damage and greed (though I'm not sure it uses the word "greed"), and about the folly of believing that man's power to manipulate nature is absolute and unlimited. And it does connect these errors with the decline of the family and related questions. But that connection is not emphasized or elaborated upon. Of course I recognize that one document can't treat every question, and this one is explicitly about the environment (a phrase which I always want to put in quotes because it seems clumsy. and to admit in the very nomenclature of the debate a view of nature as an object separate from ourselves). But I think an opportunity was missed.
And because it was missed, the actual impact in the U.S. and Europe seems likely to be a strengthening of the anti-Christian forces with which we're all familiar. There really is not much here to challenge them, and what there is will be easily ignored, as demonstrated in something Marianne posted in a comment last June:
As if on cue to prove your point, Mac, here's Hillary Clinton with two back-to-back Tweets:
@Pontifex is right—climate change is a moral crisis that disproportionately harms the neediest among us. We need leadership, not denial. -H
Welcome news: The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled to protect women's ability to access safe & legal abortion throughout the state. -H
The greatest impact of the encyclical--and I hope I'm being too pessimistic--may be in its renewal of the protections provided by the "seamless garment" doctrine elaborated by the late Cardinal Bernardin, this time at the papal level. This idea, while not in principle incorrect, gave, in our cultural context, cover to Catholic politicians and others who promoted the sexual revolution and other pathologies; as long as there was some cause under that garment they agreed with, they felt themselves to be relieved of the obligation to support others that were and are more fundamental--and not only not to support, but to attack. It established moral equivalence between matters of politics and matters of principle, so that support for a job training program was a license to support Planned Parenthood.
So, for instance, Catholic colleges that have felt themselves to be in tension (at best) with the Church, can, without changing anything, now claim magisterial approval. As long as they support environmentalism, which of course they already do, they can, for instance, leave students to navigate the wilderness of the sexual revolution with no guidance beyond the amoral what's-right-for-me sort. It is a safe bet that at many of these environmentalism will get more classroom attention than the Catholic faith.
Is it that the pope doesn't understand what Christianity in the West is up against in the utopian left, that the natural aim of the latter is to render Christianity marginalized and impotent as a cultural force? Or that he does understand and is attempting to disarm and perhaps convert the opposition? I suspect it's the former but I hope it's the latter.