Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Pope’s pose as scientific ‘expert’

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 16, 2024

“The stakes could not be higher,” Pope Francis said on May 16, speaking to participants in an international conference on climate change. But actually the stakes could be higher; they could involve human souls rather than polar ice caps or, for that matter, scientific models.

There was a time—any time, really, before 2013—when one would expect the Roman Pontiff to focus on spiritual rather than climatological questions. But that time is long gone, and no one is surprised today when Pope Francis speaks at length without touching on any distinctively Christian theme, except perhaps when he says that the destruction of the environment is “an offense against God.”

In his May 16 address the Pope said that the destruction of the environment is caused by human activity, which in turn is motivated by greed. (No doubt his denunciation of greed could also be regarded as a warning against sin and a call to Christian virtue—although the Pontiff did not phrase his argument in those terms.) The main thrust of his speech, however, was based on a series of assumptions, none of them drawn from the Gospel.

The Pope assumed:

  • that a recent trend toward higher global temperatures is destined to continue and indeed accelerate, with disastrous consequences, in the absence of new public policies, because…
  • the warming of the earth is due to a rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and
  • that accumulation is caused by human activity, specifically the consumption of fossil fuels.

Each one of those assumptions is contested by at least some leading scientists. True, surveys suggest that most scientists share the Pope’s assumptions. But scientific questions are not settled by polls, as Vatican leaders should know. (Does the name “Galileo” ring a bell?) And Pope Francis has no authority to settle scientific debates.

So why is St. Peter’s successor speaking with such confidence on these issues? Well, for one thing, Pope Francis has no interest in listening to contrary opinions. He has dismissed skepticism about climate-change ideology as “foolish.” For another, he was addressing an audience of political leaders and climate scientists—more politicians than scientists—who shared his assumptions. None of the scientists who have raised serious questions about the climate-change models will be heard at this week’s Vatican conference.

In short the Pope, and the Vatican agencies under his direction, have taken sides in the climate-change debate. That partisan approach, to a discussion that does not directly involve Catholic doctrine, is imprudent in itself. (Did I mention Galileo?) But the Pope’s May 16 address goes further, insofar as he plunged head-first into the details of the scientific discussion.

Pope Francis did not merely insist that political leaders reverse the process of climate change, by restricting the use of fossil fuels. He suggested methods of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The Vatican News service reported: “He mentioned especially the Amazon Basin and the Congo, peat bogs, mangroves, oceans, coral reefs, farmlands, and glacial icecaps.”

So now St. Peter’s successor is issuing directives for work on the peat bogs and the coral reefs, in the Amazon Basin and the Congo. Not missionary work, mind you, but public policy. And public policy designed not to alleviate poverty—in fact it is difficult to imagine how the Pope’s proposals could be implemented without causing serious economic distress in impoverished countries—but to comply with the proposals drawn from the models of climate “experts.”

Yet Pope Francis clearly does not see the issue in those terms. He told his audience of like-minded political leaders that “we are working for a culture of life or for a culture of death.” Here at last Pope Francis was using language that would be familiar to someone who has followed papal teachings over the years; the terms “culture of life” and “culture of death” were popularized by Pope John Paul II. But when that sainted Pontiff introduced those terms, he was not speaking about climate change; he was denouncing an approach to public policy that promoted abortion and euthanasia, homosexuality and contraception and divorce. And on May 16, 2024, Pope Francis was speaking to an audience dominated by politicians who promote exactly those policies.

And so it was that on May 16, given an opportunity to speak to politicians who ordinarily ignore the Gospel message—given a chance to challenge opponents of Christian morality—the Pope chose to present himself as an expert of public policy, a champion of scientists’ models.

”The stakes could not be higher,” the Pope said. In a peculiar way, he may have been right.

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: Lucius49 - May. 19, 2024 4:16 PM ET USA

    The Pope is certainly entitled to his opinion but climate change is a scientific question about which the Pope has no particular competence. On the other hand these kinds of overheated statements (no pun intended) about climate change are indicative of a secular political religion rather than the Catholic religion.

  • Posted by: Ken_H - May. 18, 2024 1:13 PM ET USA

    I have seen a few times (perhaps the same post a few times) where the actual measurement of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere is at 0.4% - perhaps an historic low? But the statement going along with that is at 0.2%, plants cannot live. Basically the end of life on earth. If all true, it seems that we do not need to reduce carbox dioxide further. Maybe the Holy Father's mind is being controlled?

  • Posted by: susandbrown1924571 - May. 18, 2024 8:46 AM ET USA

    I can’t help but believe the devil has a strong foothold on the Vatican and many other religious. I pray for a return to the true teachings of the Church.

  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - May. 17, 2024 9:02 PM ET USA

    The climate change agenda is very likely part of the war on Western culture. It’s designed to harm Western countries. That’s why the Left pushes it.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - May. 16, 2024 5:42 PM ET USA

    My thoughts exactly. As I commented at two posts today, the Pope is far afield from his proper remit. I hope the principal writers at all other Catholic sites step up as you have to put a stop to this grievous intrusion into intellectual territory beyond the competence of not just the Pope, but also bishops who have no more ability than he to promulgate on this topic. It is becoming increasingly evident, finally, that the same can be said of the clerical Covid fiasco too.

  • Posted by: garedawg - May. 16, 2024 4:46 PM ET USA

    Being a scientist, but not the atmospheric sort, I'm agnostic when it comes to man-made global warming. But yes, I suppose that clergy should confine themselves to general statements ("Try not to trash God's planet!") but leave the specifics to the secular world.

  • Posted by: feedback - May. 16, 2024 2:15 PM ET USA

    I blame Francis' advisors for this fiasco. All major climate-related initiatives and spendings seem to lean heavily towards the political Left, which isn't known for intellectual integrity or fiscal responsibility. Obama's Solyndra comes to mind.