The implicit “if” in Catholic social teaching on climate change

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 24, 2014

The Vatican Secretary of State’s moral endorsement of a Herculean effort to deal with climate change is a perfect example of why Catholic social teaching is best offered conditionally. In the realm of social teaching, any concrete moral imperative X applies only on the presumption that the conditions in question are Y and the results of the proposed intervention will be Z. But while the Church can authoritatively enunciate X, she has no superior claim to properly evaluate Y and Z.

Thus IF it is true that global warming is occurring with serious negative consequences (Y), and if there is something that can be reasonably done to halt the process and/or mitigate the consequences (Z), then there is a moral imperative (X) to take appropriate action.

But what if, after a period of steady rise in global temperatures, there has been no significant continuation of the rise for the past sixteen years, despite an increase in our production of greenhouse gases? And what if Antarctic ice was increasing rapidly even during the alarming period when Arctic ice was diminishing, and even Arctic ice is growing rapidly again now? And what if most of the world, including just about everyone reading these words, has more recently seen temperatures significantly below normal, including record lows? And what if more and more scientists are now admitting that the models they use are simply not yet accurate enough to produce reliable projections?

All of this is apparently true, by the way, and for a variety of reasons, some of which relate to how little we know about how the world’s oceans respond to temperature change. An excellent article in the Wall Street Journal by scientist Steven E. Koonin explains why Climate Science Is Not Settled—the protestations of the Vatican Secretary of State to the contrary notwithstanding.

In fact, a growing number of climatologists are apparently now exploring the possibility that we are at the beginning of a significant cycle of global cooling. Of course we have all been joking for the last couple of years about how the global cooling we are experiencing must be caused by global warming! (More seriously, scientists are just beginning to learn a little about how one phase of a heating/cooling cycle can trigger the opposite phase, thus sustaining climate equilibrium over long periods of time.)

Of course, doing something about climate change could just as well be a response to global cooling. But the key Catholic point is this: The Church is obliged by the limits of her authority to acknowledge that the moral imperatives of her social teaching depend for their application on the all-important “if”. Thus again, if the globe is warming catastrophically, and if something reasonable can be done about it, then there is a moral obligation to address the problem. If either or both are not the case, then the moral imperative disappears.

While the principles of Catholic social teaching, as derived from the natural law, are certain and unchanging, the specific applications always carry within themselves an implicit “if assessment” of the problems afflicting society and their reasonable solutions. The more Churchmen remember this—that is, the more they couch the social applications of moral principles in provisional terms—the clearer the essential moral principles will become. (Oh, and the less often Churchmen will reveal themselves to be out of the loop.)

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: impossible - Dec. 10, 2016 3:10 PM ET USA

    It is very sad to see such self-made attacks on Papal credibility. Given the very real problems facing the world and various cultures, one has to wonder about the source of these aberrations - Amoris Laetitia and this global warming nonsense. One might properly wonder about the distinct possibility that the Father of Lies is very much in attack mode.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Sep. 29, 2014 2:05 PM ET USA

    Climate sensitivity (CS) is 1 key factor in the inability of climate models to mimic 20th century temp, which in turns proves they can't predict future temp. CS=the increase in average global temperature expected from CO2 doubling. The IPCC uses CS=3°C, but that's not determined experimentally. There are 14 recent experimental estimates & they're roughly 1/2 or less of the IPCC's number. The other thing is that these experimental estimates will go lower & lower as the temp pause continues.

  • Posted by: pdhow5802 - Sep. 26, 2014 5:17 PM ET USA

    An excellent appraisal of the science, the reality on climate change, and the fact that there is a moral imperative that the hierarchy avoid making statements on matters in which they have no expertise.