Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

A Vatican official's disgraceful diatribe

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 04, 2015

A few weeks ago I worried that the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences was pushing the Vatican into needless and divisive political controversy. Now I’m afraid the same Pontifical Academy is pushing itself into disgrace.

The story begins in April, when the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS) held a conference on climate change, designed “to help build a global movement across all religions for sustainable development and climate change throughout 2015 and beyond." The conference excluded scientists who question the hypothesis of human-induced climate change, and predictably issued a statement claiming—inaccurately—that scientific debate on that hypothesis has ended.

This was unfortunate, as I said at the time, because religious leaders should not allow themselves to become embroiled in scientific debates. Maybe human activity is causing climate change, and maybe not; the Vatican brings no particular expertise to the question. By aligning themselves with one side of the argument, even if it is the dominant side, Vatican officials run the risk of dividing the faithful now, and of bringing scorn on the Church later if that side is proven wrong.

But the PASS is certainly not the first organization to declare a premature end to the climate-change debate. The question has become thoroughly politicized (yet another good reason for religious leaders to keep their distance) and so it is not surprising that the PASS did what many other academic and professional organizations have done.

But the PASS leadership took another step in the wrong direction when Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the PASS, answered questions about why the conference had not included critics of the prevailing climate-change theories. In an ill-informed and ill-tempered response, the archbishop claimed that the Tea Party is the main force behind such criticism, and that all scientists who question the prevailing theory are paid by the oil industry and other powerful lobbies. He went on to deny that the UN leadership (which has been heavily involved in the climate-change discussion) has backed the worldwide drive for abortion and contraception. On all of these points—which are matters of fact, not opinion—Bishop Sanchez Sorondo is simply, completely, demonstrably wrong.

Stefano Gennarini of the Center for Family and Human Rights, who had posed the questions to Bishop Sanchez Sorondo, called attention to the errors in the prelate’s replies in a clear but respectful piece for First Things. He did not denounce or insult the archbishop; he merely made his points—presumably hoping to stimulate a genuine debate.

Instead, Margaret Archer, the president of the PASS, fired back with a vituperative attack on Gennarini. In a shocking diatribe, Archer completely ignored the substance of Gennarini’s arguments to concentrate on an ad hominem attack. Invoking a hoary old pro-abortion canard, she claimed that pro-lifers are only interested in human life up until the time of birth. She charged, without supporting evidence, that Gennarini’s supposed focus on abortion causes him to ignore human trafficking. She complained that Gennarini was seeking to exclude liberal speakers from the Vatican conference, rather than trying to include conservatives. She asked Gennarini the insulting question: “which lobbyists meet your salary bill?”

Archer characterized Gennarini’s First Things article as a “hate message.” But it was her piece, not his, that reeked of contempt for an intellectual adversary. “We are respected academics who take full responsibility for our actions,” Archer wrote. But “respected academics” resolve disagreements by logical arguments, not personal attacks.

Archer’s ad hominem approach, and her unwillingness to engage the real issues in the debate, were unworthy of a social scientist. Her uncharitable attitude is unworthy of someone representing the Holy See.

The next thing Margaret Archer writes, in her capacity with the Pontifical Academy, should be either an apology or a resignation.

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: Thomas429 - Jun. 07, 2015 12:16 AM ET USA

    Excuse me but what is a Pontifical Academy on Social Sciences doing saying anything about climate science. Though "Social Science" and "Climate Science" suffer from much of the same lack of rigor that science usually requires.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Jun. 05, 2015 9:27 PM ET USA

    Shame on the archbishop! Our hierarchical prelates should know better than to mix politics with the Church. For the most part, they are out of their element and expertise.

  • Posted by: filioque - Jun. 05, 2015 2:55 PM ET USA

    Exactly, polish.pinecone. This entire sequence of events has been shameful. It does not bode well for what is coming in the papal encyclical.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jun. 05, 2015 9:08 AM ET USA

    "The next thing Margaret Archer writes, in her capacity with the Pontifical Academy, should be either an apology or a resignation." It should be both. No scientist worthy of the title should be able to get away with such a direct affront to an intellectual adversary and to the scientific method.