Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Vatican's dangerous embrace of climate-change theory

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 29, 2015

Imagine—just imagine, for the sake of the argument—that scientists in a future generation discover that the global-warming trend of recent years was not caused by human activity. If that happens, what will be the consequences for the Catholic Church, in light of the Vatican’s apparent embrace of the climate-change hypothesis?

This is not-- repeat, not another column about the scientific evidence for or against the reality human-induced climate change. If you are inclined to respond by denouncing either the proponents or the foes of that theory, please stop. My own personal opinion on that theory is of little or no value, since I am not qualified to speak on scientific questions. Nor, for that matter, are many of the reporters and columnists who form public opinion on this matter.

My point is a simple one. There is a scientific debate on this question, and the debate is unsettled. Yes, I realize that a majority of scientists have accepted the argument that human activity is causing climate change. But scientific debates are not resolved by majority vote. Some very distinguished scientists remain unconvinced. There is heavy pressure on them to embrace the climate-change theory, but that evidence is primarily political rather than scientific. To date no one has produced the conclusive evidence that would shut off further debate. Until that evidence appears, it is not unreasonable to speculate about what might ensue if the minority view is vindicated.

Let me add a second simple point. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has no expertise in science. If bishops and cardinals and even Roman Pontiffs throw their support behind one side of a scientific debate—in this case, if they ally themselves with the climate-change theorists—they might add to the political pressure on the skeptics. But that will not alter the scientific facts.

So let me return to my initial question. If the Catholic Church endorses the climate-change hypothesis, and later developments prove that hypothesis wrong, what will be the net result? The result, I fear, will be skepticism: not about climate issues, but about the authority of the Catholic Church. Critics of Catholicism will say that the Vatican had learned nothing from the Galileo affair, and had again exerted its moral authority improperly in a scientific debate.

Of course that unhappy outcome would occur only if the climate-change hypothesis is proven wrong. If the hypothesis is confirmed, then the Vatican’s support will seem justified. But since the debate is unsettled, is it prudent for the Vatican to gamble on the outcome?

Cui bono? Who profits from the Vatican’s involvement in the climate-change debate? Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the UN, has been delighted with the Vatican’s participation in the debate. He told this week’s conference in Rome that religious and scientific leaders should cooperate: “Together, we must clearly communicate that the science of climate change is deep, sound, and not in doubt.” In other words he welcomed the Vatican’s willingness to make a statement on a scientific question.

Speaking on climate change, Ban Ki-moon insisted: “It is a moral issue. It is an issue of social justice, human rights, and fundamental ethics.” Well, then, I hope the UN leadership will be equally willing to accept the Vatican’s guidance on moral issues, on issues of human rights and fundamental ethics.

In his own address to the same conference, Cardinal Peter Turkson also spoke about the “moral imperative” of action on climate change. But the cardinal’s perspective differed from that of the UN official in a few important respects. While Ban Ki-moon concentrated on climate change, Cardinal Turkson spoke about the “throwaway culture” and the need for moral conversion. These—unlike the measurements of global temperatures and plotting of climate models—are questions on which the Catholic Church can speak with some real authority.

Cardinal Turkson spoke about the scandal of hunger in a world in which there is sufficient food for everyone. It is a scandal, he observed, that roughly one-third of all the food produced goes to waste. How could anyone dispute that? The Vatican has frequently observed that the affluent societies of the West are furnishing impoverished countries with guns and contraceptives, but not with food and medicine. Surely something is profoundly wrong with the global economic system that forms those priorities.

Christians are called to be good stewards of natural resources, and by inference to oppose the rapacious exploitation of natural resources. There is a great deal that Church leaders could say—and have said, and should continue to say—about the need to develop resources rather than simply to harvest them; to cooperate with natural processes rather than defeat them by the use of chemical or mechanical might; to respect and nurture rather than to divide and conquer.

No doubt Pope Francis will sound all these themes in his forthcoming encyclical on the environment. But those important messages may be lost in translation, if the mass media see the papal document as nothing more than an endorsement of the climate-change theory.

Cardinal Turkson told the April 28 conference that “the Church must speak forcefully on the great challenge of our time: the challenge of sustainable development.” Fair enough; sustainable development—good stewardship—is a goal worthy of the Church’s support. But Ban Ki-moon had a different message: “climate change is the defining issue of our time.” In every report that I have read about the Rome conference in the secular media, without exception, that is the issue that has been in the forefront. Not sustainable development, the throwaway culture, not moral conversion, but climate change: the one issue on which the Church cannot speak with authority.

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.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: filioque - Sep. 16, 2016 7:11 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis has as one of his for guiding principles that reality is greater than ideas. In other words, if you can change the practice of the Church on the ground it does not matter what the doctrine is. This explains his indirect but very effective ambiguity. The people who are tuned to his frequency get the signal loud and clear. We are watching the wrong ball to argue about magisterial qualities and authorities. Meanwhile, the Kaspers and Marxes and Shoenborns are racing down the field.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 16, 2016 7:17 AM ET USA

    Thank you. May Our Lady reward you. "The progressive force, on the contrary, which responds to the inner needs lies in the individual consciences and ferments there- especially in such of them as are in most intimate contact with life."-Pascendi. In reviewing the section of the encyclical: "The Evolution of Doctrine" there are several salient points. Unfortunately they appear very familiar in light of current events in Rome. Pope St. Pius X speaks very clearly about things we are now seeing.

  • Posted by: shrink - Sep. 16, 2016 7:12 AM ET USA

    Phil, let's assume the following—the papacy, until now, has been anchored by three pillars: Faith, Law, Reason (FLR). JP2 and B16 epitomized FLR, in all that they said and did. But also assume that Francis is a Fideist. For him, both L and R take a back seat to F. Francis suggests this in AL#3. He also everywhere talks about the Spirit. (almost as much as the charismatics.) This for me is a strong indicator of Fideism. We are too rational, too much into L & R, thus we dont understand Francis.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - May. 07, 2015 3:36 PM ET USA

    In not even the blink of an eye in terms of climate cnange, we have forgotten the threat from the global cooling of tbe70's . Hmmmm!

  • Posted by: chady - May. 05, 2015 7:19 AM ET USA

    Perhaps Pope Francis through this encyclical will remind us all of our fundamental responsibilities for the spiritual and physical welfare for all nations of people. Yes protecting the world’s environment is very important but more so is the exercising of the Gospel values in daily life. This is fundamental if the world and its peoples are to have any future at all. The restoration of Gospel life starts with us. ‘If we commit ourselves to the Lord he will act on our behalf.’

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - May. 05, 2015 5:00 AM ET USA

    The Vatican should stay far away from the climate change hoax whose adherents are largely pro-abortion, socialists and harbor a totalitarian mentality. Pope Francis should take on our corrupt culture and the lack of faith by Catholics.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - May. 03, 2015 2:01 PM ET USA

    The UN sees it as a defining issue because their hope is to have a world wide tax go to the UN to redistribute as it sees fit. Follow the money and you will see why this is such a big deal to the left. The idea that "misery likes company" will be played out in this climate scenario which is a big scam.

  • Posted by: hitchs - May. 02, 2015 9:10 PM ET USA

    I don't think the comparison with Galileo is very sound. In the argument on the heliocentric nature of the universe, there was a valid doctrinal question: Does the heliocentric model of the heavens contradict Scripture? There is nothing remotely theological about the climate change "debate".

  • Posted by: j.fleming8019 - May. 02, 2015 3:57 AM ET USA

    This is a really very important article. Thank you again Dr Mirus!

  • Posted by: jimr451 - May. 01, 2015 9:30 PM ET USA

    I am concerned that one of the "root causes" of climate change bantered about by some is "overpopulation." So by getting too chummy with the U.N., the Vatican may be giving cover to more efforts by the UN to promote contraception and abortion around the world. The U.N.'s definition of morality and human rights is far different than that of the Catholic Church!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 30, 2015 6:42 PM ET USA

    I agree with Phil. Stewardship of the environment and the animal kingdom, more sharing, less coercion by the U.S. State Department and its domestic and U.N. partners, in a word--being followers of Christ's commands--these are the values the Church should be focussing on in its dealings with the secularists.

  • Posted by: seewig - Apr. 30, 2015 3:16 PM ET USA

    The "encyclical", if it will be one, will certainly be a defining moment in Pope Francis' papacy. The line will become clearer.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Apr. 29, 2015 11:59 PM ET USA

    If jasoncpetty is right about the Vatican's motivation, then it's politically naïve to a degree I should have thought impossible.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Apr. 29, 2015 5:19 PM ET USA

    But it's also unlike Galileo, where there were actual Scriptural and traditional reasons to weigh in; now that the split between natural philosophy/science and religion is complete, here we lose nothing real by being wrong other than prestige. It's an easy issue to weigh in on and keep our seat at the international table, so when the *actual* human rights issues come up we Catholics can use our voice.