The Vatican doesn’t have a great track record on science. It took them a bit more than three and a half centuries to acknowledge that Gallileo was right, after all, with that business about the Earth revolving around the sun.
So it’s not surprising that word of a major new Vatican focus on climate change have shaken up many people on both sides of the issue, in the process turning comfortable sets of ideological assumptions on their head.
Those you might expect to be highly skeptical of the Vatican’s teachings on many other issues are encouraged by what they are hearing, hoping it will provide a major push toward a binding global agreement to limit greenhouse gases at a conference in Paris later this year. As a matter of fact, the Vatican’s timing seems intended to push the process forward.
On the other side, those who question the link between human activity and climate change (and at least some of whom are quite comfortable with the Vatican’s cultural conservatism on questions of personal morality) find themselves arguing — vociferously in this case — that Pope Francis has no scientific expertise and should keep his views to himself.
At issue is an encyclical, a letter from the pope to the world’s Catholics, which will be released sometime this summer. While it’s unclear yet exactly what he will say about climate change, the Vatican has tried out many possible themes already. Among them is an emphasis on environmental issues as a matter of social justice.
To be fair, these issues aren’t new for the Vatican. Francis’ predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both spoke out on the need to protect the environment. But putting it into an encyclical raises the bar.
Late last month, the Vatican organized a conference on the moral aspects of climate change that was attended by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said he hoped the pope’s moral authority would help push the Paris climate talks toward an agreement.
But it’s actually not just a matter of papal authority – which is frequently ignored on all kinds of issues. It’s a matter of this pope’s broad global popularity. Francis and Benedict might think alike on environmental issues, but Francis’ human touch means far more people are likely to pay attention. And he doesn’t seem averse to involving the Vatican in politics. Francis helped bridge differences between the United States and Cuba, leading to the agreement to restore diplomatic relations after more than half a century.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, an influential Vatican official, cast the climate change issue in moral terms at the gathering last month: “The lesson from the Garden of Eden still rings true today: pride, hubris, self-centerdness are always perilous, indeed destructive. The very technology that has brought great reward is now poised to bring great ruin.”
It’s pretty clear how many prominent Catholic conservatives feel about how the Vatican is shaping the argument. It’s less clear, and will be quite interesting to see, how Republican presidential candidates, several of whom are Catholics, play this. It will be hard to duck the issue. Francis is not only coming to the U.S. later this year. On invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, he will address a joint session of Congress.
Critics on the right already suspect Francis of being wobbly on a number of longstanding Catholic teachings. He has met with a founder of the liberation theology movement and broken a logjam over the beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Several critics have been scathing on climate change. You don’t often read something like this this: Francis “is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist.”
And, from the same piece by Maureen Mullarkey: “Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.”
Or, this from Christopher Monckton, a British lord and a Catholic, at a conference organized to counter last month’s Vatican gathering: “You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance.”
If you set aside the angry rhetoric, the disagreement does really start with science. In that sense, the debate hasn’t budged. The Vatican accepts scientific evidence that human activity is largely responsible for climate change. But its arguments about the moral, economic and theological aspects of the phenomenon won’t persuade someone who doesn’t agree.
Vatican officials acknowledge that Catholics aren’t obliged to follow the pope’s teaching in this case – but add that the faithful will have to have a good reason to ignore it.
And although it took a few centuries, there is a rich irony in all this, as Tim Egan recently pointed out: The church that punished Gallileo for daring to elevate science over doctrine is now challenging powerful interests that deny overwhelming scientific evidence.