Let me just start by claiming credit for being an environmentalist, in that the mass degradation of the natural world by industrial agriculture, manufacturing and yes, fossil fuels – by human short sightedness and obsession with material consumption – is of grave concern to me. I am, in short, a not-very closeted, Left-Coast hippie tree-hugger, and always have been, and so as a Catholic, I am looking actively for guidance in framing these topics. I have felt for a long time that the Church’s competent (that is, believing) theologians should address them.
The other day our friend Jimmy Akin offered his list of “12 things to know and share” about the leaking of the encyclical. I thought this was a useful format, so now that we can all read the thing for ourselves, I’m offering a different kind of list: larger issues to think about to give the document some context.
1 – Does the encyclical, in its topic or its handling, undercut papal authority? – How much authority does the papal office give Francis to make definitive statements about climate change, or about science in general? None. Nada. Not a lick. On the subject of global warming, climate change and the environment Pope Francis is as authoritative as the guy sitting next to you on the bus. He’s as authoritative as I am.
Papal infallibility does not extend either to scientific, economic or political matters. Nor does the ordinary authority of the papal office – aside from formal infallibility – bestow any particular insight into these matters. This is why, of course, popes have advisors and even ghost writers for non-infallible documents. But having made some very disputable statements as though they are indisputable facts, Pope Francis has with this document perhaps created bigger problems for himself, his successors and for the Church by undercutting the genuine authority that actually is proper to the office.
It is normal for popes to write encyclicals on topics for which they have personally little or no background. This is why they have advisors and drafting committees whose job it is (or perhaps was) to frame the papal responses with infinite care to ensure that he remains within strictly defined boundaries. But for all the papal documents on topics that are not specifically theological, has there ever been a time in modern Catholic history when a pope has made definitive claims on highly disputed scientific topics without the least nod to the legitimacy, or even existence of a debate?
What can we say about a pope who would declare, on a massively un-settled, vexed and hugely controversial scientific and political subject, “Global warming is real and humans caused it, and we know this because the mainstream science says so.” (With the implied coda, “So shut up, everybody who disagrees.”)
“Scientific consensus exists indicating firmly that we are in the presence of a worrisome warming of the climate system.”
“In recent decades… the heating was accompanied by the constant rise in the sea level…”
“…And [it] is also hard not to relate it to the increase in extreme weather events, regardless of the fact that we cannot attribute a cause scientifically determined to each particular phenomenon.”
“[N]umerous scientific studies indicate that most of the global warming of recent decades is due to the large concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other) issued mainly because of human activity.”
All of these claims, presented by the pope under his authority as absolutely indisputable fact, have been disputed and sometimes even outright debunked, all by people well within the realm of perfectly reputable science.
In fact, so problematic has the claim become that “warmist” activists have had to change their scare-term to the more neutral “climate change” to avoid having people point and laugh at them at scientist parties. Someone might have informed the pope of this change before allowing him to embarrass himself.
But more pertinently, how can anyone ever trust Pope Francis’ pronouncements on any other topic again? How can such declarations be anything other than catastrophic for his personal credibility? Because the unwritten implication behind these extraordinary assertions is that he himself thinks he does have some kind of special insight.
So outrageous is the presumption that a pope could make definitive statements in highly politically charged scientific disputes, that some bolder among our Catholic writer colleagues were openly mocking it within hours of the encyclical’s release. Matt Archbold, brother of Remnant columnist Pat, posted the headline yesterday, “Good News. Pope Now Respected as Science Expert.”
Protestants have always accused Catholics of believing everything the pope says on every subject whatever. They have accused us, in fact if not word, of “papal positivism,” the very theological vice that has suddenly become fashionable within the Church. And with this foray into areas where he has no more competence than anyone else, Pope Francis himself appears to be first among this trend.
And this is not the first time. When he was asked why he thought there had been mutterings against his lack of clarity and sound leadership, Francis told Antonio Spadaro, “Look, I wrote an encyclical – true enough, it was by four hands – and an apostolic exhortation. I’m constantly making statements, giving homilies. That’s magisterium. That’s what I think, not what the media say that I think.”
The Catholic neo-conservative world tied itself into knots trying to demonstrate that the pope’s many interviews, homilies and off-the-cuff ramblings, and the frequently incomprehensible statements in them, meant nothing. That he wasn’t interested in changing Church doctrine or doing anything really crazy, because as everyone knows, interviews and off-the-cuff comments can’t be taken as part of the formal papal magisterium. Shortly after this, they fell silent as the Vatican issued a book compiling all the papal interviews, primarily those most controversial ones with the Marxist atheist Eugenio Scalfari, and calling it formally part of the Francis magisterium.
The conclusion seems inescapable that this is a pope who does not know the meaning of the term “papal magisterium,” or the purpose of his own office. Or perhaps who simply doesn’t care. Remember, this is also the pope who has repeatedly railed against “doctors of the law” and the Church’s previous interest in “small-minded rules.”
2 – Who were these advisors? – Many of the people who have criticised Pope Francis for coming down on this side of the “global warming” debate have pointed out that he is now keeping some very unpleasant company indeed. And appears to be doing so without the least embarrassment.
Who are these people? Well, one of the people at the press conference launching the encyclical officially – who was presumably also advising the pope – was Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. This is a highly respected member of the warmist community and is perhaps the best possible representative of their entire programme for humanity. And his influence is enormous. He advises the Chancellor of Germany, Europe’s lead economic nation and serves as chairman of the German Advisory Council on Global Change. At the transnational level, he is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of the United Nations.
Professor Schellnhuber is a major voice calling for massive reduction in… wait for it… human population. In 2009, he articulated the commonly held opinion of the scientific left that the only solution for planet earth will be the elimination of all but one billion of the human population. The New York Times reported on his speech at an international climate meeting in Copenhagen, where he said it is a “triumph for science” that they have “stabilized” the estimate: “namely the estimates for the carrying capacity of the planet, namely below 1 billion people.” At that time, Herr Schellnhuber declined to specify a methodology for achieving this.
At the Vatican’s press conference, though, he focused on other priorities, protesting only that “the science of Laudato Si is watertight.” He added a warning that if “humanity” didn’t reduce carbon emissions, “we, our neighbors, and children will be exposed to intolerable risks.”
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Pretty softy-toffee stuff for a guy who openly proposes eliminating over 5 billion people. Perhaps with a mind to where he was sitting, he added that he wanted to expel the “myth” that climate change has to be fought by reducing the number of poor.
“Contrary to what some have claimed, it is not the mass of poor people that destroys the planet, but the consumption of the rich,” he said. Which I’m sure represents a massive conversion in this, one of the world’s leading advocates of population control. Must’ve been the New Evangelization. (Rorate Caeli has more from the press conference here.)
3 – Who is this document really meant for? – Is this encyclical really meant for Catholics at all? A colleague of mine wrote, “LS is a meandering mishmash of muddled thought…” Is this surprising? Was anyone expecting anything else from the meanderingest, mish-mashiest leader of the Church we’ve ever had? I know that there is an ongoing contest at Vatican Radio to “translate” the pope’s homilies and Angelus addresses into language – complete sentences – that can actually be understood. There is a reason that VR usually only publishes summaries and not complete transcripts.
Pope Francis bows to the pro-abort Secretary-General of the United Nations
Certainly the atheist, anti-human, Marxist ideologues who are being recruited to promote and advise on it have no interest in informing or advising believers on the specific will of God about the proper stewardship and management of the earth’s resources. From their point of view, it could have said anything at all, as long as it was vague, disorganized, ambiguous and mish-mashy. Pope Francis personal writing, speaking (and presumably thinking) style is ideal for those who want to use the papal office to further their own causes. Only this time, of course, the pope himself has invited them to collaborate personally.
It certainly seems that the encyclical was intended by its real authors, the warmists and population-controllers, leftists and Marxists in and out of the Church, as little more than a prop to hold up in front of cameras during interviews and say, “See? The pope agrees with us. And the Catholic Church has to obey because it’s the pope and as everyone knows, all Catholics have to believe unquestioningly everything the pope says, right?”
Which is already happening. In his commentary, Chris Ferrara predicted that “the world will ignore the good elements in LS and proclaim a great victory for climate change fanatics—a victory Francis will undoubtedly have given them…” And indeed, with the ink barely dry, that machinery is already well in motion.
Crux, the Catholic magazine of the bitterly anti-Catholic leftist paper the Boston Globe, quoted Argentinean Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who, they said, “shrugged off the criticism the document is receiving from some sectors of society.”
Crux continues: “Though Catholic skeptics on climate change are within their rights not to believe in it, that doesn’t mean [they] can ignore the fact that Laudato Si’ is now part of the Church’s official teaching.”
“One can’t choose to only accept the documents we like,” they quoted the archbishop saying.
From the redoubtable Fr. Thomas Rosica, the English language spokesman for the Holy See press office and vigorous defender of all Canadian things Catholic and lefty, we have, “No Catholic is free to dissent from the teaching of Laudato Si.” Well, we’ve been told, eh?
The irony of watching the Catholic extreme left demanding that conservatives obey the pope and accusing them of being “cafeteria Catholics” has been one of the more entertaining aspects of the entire Francis parade for the last two years. All we needed, really, was an encyclical, and now we get to watch them insisting that this type of papal document “IS SO magisterial and infallible, dammit! And is to be obeyed WITHOUT QUESTION!”
4– Has the pope undercut the Church’s work for the poor in the developing world? – But much less entertainingly, there are concerns that Pope Francis in this document has clearly and repeatedly taken the position of some of the Church’s most bitter and venomous enemies, and, moreover, the enemies of the very poor he claims to want to defend. This is, after all, the camp at the UN and elsewhere of those who would resolve the problem of poverty, particularly developing world poverty, by simply eliminating the poor.
In other words, it could easily be argued that Pope Francis has undercut decades of work defending the poor and helpless of his own delegation at the UN. This is the group of people who have sometimes been the sole voice opposing the population control agenda that has been forcing abortion, sterilization and enforced contraception on the developing world.
And before anyone starts howling, let me say that a single, rather ambiguous, token four-line paragraph – in a nearly 200 page document – stating that “concern for the protection of nature” is “incompatible with the justification of abortion,” reads like the barest possible token nod. And it is not going to have the protective power of an umbrella in a hurricane. Particularly since it is immediately followed with the notion that some people’s existence really can be “troublesome or inconvenient,” and whose existence “is uncomfortable and creates difficulties.”
“If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.” … Right. That’ll show em!
5 – Let’s talk about the White Coat fallacy – We keep hearing, from the encyclical itself and from its defenders on the left that “global warming” and climate change catastrophizing is “mainstream science”. Let’s examine what that means, if anything.
How does real science actually work? We all learned it in high school: a scientist observes natural phenomena, then comes up with experiments to test his observations and writes down the results. He develops a hypothesis to explain the observed phenomena and then tests it some more. As the results of his tests bring him more information, he may or may not adjust his hypothesis. Then he publishes the results of his investigation, and other scientists reproduce the tests to see if they get the same result. This process continues more or less indefinitely and information on the observed phenomena is added a piece at a time in an infuriatingly slow process that is of no interest to journalists and politicians whatsoever.
Sometimes the scientific world succumbs to the temptation to say, “This thing we’ve observed, we’ve got it licked. We know all about it. The science is settled.” Sometimes this is a pretty safe bet. The planet, for example, does seem to be going around the sun, and not the other way round. But in general, with questions that anyone is still paying the slightest attention to, the notion of “settled science” is an oxymoron. The only way one could have “mainstream” science is if science itself had become heavily politicized. Which it has.
Let’s examine a completely different topic. When does pregnancy occur? From the 1880s, medical science knew that a unique human being comes into existence from the moment the gametes are fused. Later they found out more about genes and this idea was confirmed again. And again. Every textbook ever published on the subject of human embryology confirms the same findings: a unique, genetically distinct member of a given species comes into existence at fertilization.
How is pregnancy now defined by governments around the world, informed by their scientific advisors? It is usually defined as beginning when the zygote implants in the endometrium. This is the “mainstream” scientific opinion among doctors and bioethics committees the world over. It is the “settled science” on human reproduction. Only, of course, it came about because the medical world wanted to get wedded to chemical contraception, and in 1965, had to get it past the Catholic doctors in all the professional medical bodies.
Later, in the early 2000s when governments around the world again wanted to pass legislation having to do with human reproduction, this time created artificially in petri dishes, they asked the same group of people if it was OK. In every case, the science advisors shouted in chorus, “Sure!” No parliamentary or congressional committee in any jurisdiction anywhere ever invited anyone who specialized in embryology to give evidence at the public hearing stage. They didn’t need to. Everyone knows, the “science is settled.”
An entire science-writer career could be made out of the incredible political shenanigans being perpetrated to bolster materialist Darwinism. Heaven help any scientist who dares to breathe the slightest doubt about the orthodoxy of random mutation and selection.
Briefly, what we’ve got here is a papal example of the old White Coat fallacy: a simplistic appeal to “science” or “scientists say” that would receive a failing grade from any reputable journalism school.
6 – A brief note about the footnotes – Every encyclical ever written relies heavily on lots of different sources, and these are normally listed at the bottom as footnotes, and this one is no different. There is only one problem, however. Nowhere in the midst of all these rather extraordinary scientific claims is there a single footnote saying where, exactly, the pope got his “solid” and “settled” “mainstream science”.
We have the usual roster of encyclicals, statements from bishops’ conferences, Vatican II documents, apostolic exhortations, even one or two saints. But where are the scientific references? Where are the citations to articles in peer review journals? To papers from scientific conferences? Where, in other words, did the pope’s scientific assertions come from?
In fact, out of a final total of 172 footnotes, the only “scientist” quoted is the discredited heretic, eugenicist, Nazi-supporter and archaeological hoaxer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
How is this document going to be received by the world? We are seeing that already, and Catholics concerned about the unspoken messages being sent by this encyclical are being told quite firmly by Francis’ main supporters to “Shut up and obey.”
How should believing Catholics deal with it? I would recommend the advice given by St. Paul. If you feel inclined, read it, figure out as best you can which parts are good and theologically sound, give them your assent, and then stop worrying about it.
And pray for the pope and the Church, and pray that saner heads will soon prevail. The Synod is coming; let us not be distracted.