By Hilary White:
Since my buddy Chris Ferrara has, perhaps before anyone else in the English speaking world, done a thorough examination of the pope’s environment encyclical, “Laudato Si,” I will confine myself here to some observations of a different sort and to proposing a few questions for consideration – to talking around it, so to speak.
A great many people, long before the document was issued yesterday, have been asking whether it should have been written at all. Is this appropriate for a pope? Why was it necessary? Why, of all the possible topics, did Pope Francis choose this one? Has he stepped outside the proper bounds of papal authority? Aren’t there more pressing matters for the head of the Catholic Church to think about? (Does anyone know how many Chaldean Catholics are still alive in Mosul, Iraq, for instance?)
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.”
Continue reading over at The Remnant