Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Let Priests Be Priests

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 13, 2010

We're re-posting some of Phil Lawler's most relevant past entries while he's on vacation. Here's his take on the business of bishops, from June 19, 2009:

Yesterday we carried a news story about the statement by COMECE-- the umbrella group representing episcopal conferences of the European Union-- announcing that "climate change has become a question of survival." This is not an authoritative statement, of course. But it will be interpreted as an official statement of the Catholic hierarchy, endorsing a scientific proposition that is still under debate.

Isn't that how the Church got into trouble in the Gallileo affair?

The COMECE statement suggested radical changes in the way we live, as a means of curbing climate change. Embedded in that statement are several assumptions:

  • That temperatures are rising-- not just in one region (the Arctic) but all around the globe.
  • That this rise in temperatures (if it exists) is attributable to something more than the natural rhythm of weather patterns, which have shown rising and cooling trends across the centuries.
  • That in fact the reported change in temperatures is caused by human actions, and therefore…
  • That a change in human behavior will stop the trend.

Personally, I am quite skeptical about every one of those assumptions. But I am not a scientist, so my opinion doesn't really matter.

My point, however, is that bishops aren't scientists either, and they would do well to leave scientific debates to those who are qualified to address the issues. The question of climate change has become a matter of political contention, and that's all the more reason for bishops to remain neutral, rather than risking the credibility of the Church by identification with one or the other side.

Also in yesterday's news, a group of Canadian bishops announced their desire for greater public discussion before nuclear power plants are built. Again, these bishops seem to be leaping into a highly politicized scientific debate.

Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary told reporters that in this proposed discussion, the bishops would not necessarily take the lead, "but we'd certainly want to be a player." Why? A bishop has plenty of vitally important work to do: teaching, governing, and sanctifying. Being a "player" in political or scientific discussions is not on that list. Quite the contrary: Vatican II reminds us that secular affairs are the proper responsibility of the Catholic laity-- who should be prepared for that responsibility by way of the spiritual formation their bishops offer them.

Coincidentally, these two stories appeared on the same day that we also reported the letter from Pope Benedict to the world's Catholic clergy, explaining his plan for the Year for Priests. In that letter the Holy Father quotes extensively from the Curé of Ars, the patron and model for parish priests. Hidden away in his little parish, St. John Vianney was not a "player" in public affairs. But he was a superb pastor of souls. By molding the consciences of his parishioners, and strengthening their interior life, he made them better able to be "players" in their own secular callings. That's the role of a priest, and still more the role of a bishop.

Let scientists be scientists. Let politicians be politicians. Encourage Catholic scientists and politicians to hash out their differences, and trust that, if they have the proper spiritual formation, they will reach the right results. And in order to ensure that they do have that spiritual formation, let priests be priests.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jtuturic3013 - Aug. 03, 2010 5:03 AM ET USA

    "Climate science is settled plenty enough." This is an erroneous claim. Are some things common sense? Sure. Dumping loads of chemicals or garbage in rivers, lakes and the oceans should have been banned from the get go. We didn't need years of evidence to tell us it was bad. That said, there are plenty of environmental "science" claims that are suspect, such as global warming. Just because "a scientist said" it, doesn't mean it's remotely right. History is filled with bad "science"?

  • Posted by: lynnvinc7142 - Jul. 14, 2010 9:26 AM ET USA

    God is TRUTH, and we owe respect to scientific "truths" (tho they be lacking 100% certainty and are subject to change with better data/theory). When they claim we are harming people, we REALLY need to listen. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to turn off lights not in use. We need to mitigate climate change in every way we can, and luckily most of those ways save us money without lowering living standards or productivity. Climate science is settled plenty enough.