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New papal document puts climate change before faith [news analysis]

October 04, 2023

News analysis by Philip F. Lawler

Laudate Deum, the new apostolic exhortation released by the Vatican on October 4, is an astonishing document, in which Pope Francis uses his authority to make definitive judgements—not on questions of faith and morals, but on scientific and political questions that are still under debate.

In the Galileo controversy, some Church leaders unwisely sought to settle a scientific debate by invoking ecclesiastical authority. In this new document Pope Francis takes the same approach to the issue of climate change, insisting that only radical economic and political reforms can stave off environmental disaster.

Laudate Deum is a follow-up to Laudato Si’, the environmental encyclical that the Pope released in May 2015. At the start of the new document (paragraph #2), the Pontiff says that he feels compelled to speak out again because of the urgency of the crisis; “I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”

Laudate Deum is a comparatively short document—just over 7,500 words, as opposed to the 40,000-word bulk of Laudato Si’. But the text conveys a clear sense of impatience, a determination to stir consciences. Yet this apostolic exhortation is not a particularly religious document. In fact the word “conscience” appears only three times, while secular terms proliferate: “climate” appear 42 times, “global” 31.

As a matter of fact, in this exhortation—addressed “to all people of good will”—the Pope mentions the name of Jesus only three times, twice in the opening paragraph. “Lord” is never used, nor are “sin,” “salvation,” “redemption,” or “prayer.” Only toward the end of the document—beginning with paragraph #61—does Pope Francis turn his attention to “spiritual motivations.”

Beyond all doubt?

“It is no longer possible to doubt the human—‘anthropic’—origin of climate change,” the Pope writes (#11). That statement, an essential key to the argument of the entire document, is plainly, demonstrably wrong.

It undeniably is possible to doubt that human actions are responsible for climate change, because many people do doubt it—including many scientists with excellent credentials. Personally I find the skeptics’ arguments persuasive. Of course my opinion carries little weight, because I am not a scientist. But then Pope Francis, too, is not a professional scientist, and while his authority as Roman Pontiff enables him to speak with authority on doctrinal issues, that authority does not extend to scientific controversies.

After saying that it is impossible to doubt human-caused climate change, the Pope hedges his bet a bit (#13), saying: “The overwhelming majority of scientists specializing in the climate support this correlation, and only a very small percentage of them seek to deny the evidence.” That may be true, but scientific facts are not settled by majority vote.

Pope Francis insists (#5) that “it is verifiable that specific climate changes provoked by humanity are notably heightening the probability of extreme phenomena that are increasingly frequent and intense.” [emphasis added] But in the next paragraph he dismisses critics of that hypothesis by saying: “They forget to mention another relevant datum: that what we are presently experiencing is an unusual acceleration of warming, at such a speed that it will take only one generation—not centuries or millennia—in order to verify it.” So is it verifiable now, or will it only be verified a generation from now?

Later (#17), after at first conceding that some “apocalyptic diagnoses may well appear scarcely reasonably or insufficiently grounded,” the Pontiff nevertheless refuses to dismiss the alarmists, saying: “We cannot state with certainty that all this is going to happen, based on present conditions. But it is certain that it continues to be a possibility…”

Economic and political analysis

After making the dramatic claim that climate change, caused by human activity, is a threat to the future of the planet, Pope Francis turns his attention to the economic and political dimensions of the problem. Here again he presents a series of arguments that lie clearly beyond the scope of his authority to speak for the Catholic Church.

For example, he writes (#10):

It is often heard too that efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuels and developing cleaner energy sources will lead to a reduction in the number of jobs. What is happening is that millions of people are losing their jobs due to different effects of climate change…

Is it true that more jobs have been lost because of climate change than would be lost by shutting down the use of fossil fuels? There is no simple way to test that sort of hypothetical claim, and a prudent economist would shy away from making a prediction, recognizing the enormous number of unsolved variables that would have to be factored into the equation. But the Pope, who is not an economist, does not hesitate to render judgment here.

Nor does he hesitate to suggest that the crackdown on fossil-fuel consumption must be enforced by some strong international authority. “We are speaking above all of ‘more effective world organizations, equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defense of fundamental human rights.’ The issue is that they must be endowed with real authority.” (#35)

Does the Pope realize that existing international organizations, most notably the UN, have actually proven hostile to fundamental human rights, such as the right to life and the right to religious freedom? At a few points in this apostolic exhortation he shows some recognition of that problem. He decries (#26) “the idea that the human being is extraneous, a foreign element capable only of harming the environment.” And he notices (#9) that “there are those who would place responsibility on the poor, since they have many children, and even attempt to resolve the problem by mutilating women in less developed countries.” But he does not recognize the tight connections between the climate-change agenda and the population-control lobby, with its contempt for marriage and the family.

Pope Francis warns that propaganda can be skillfully used by the rich and powerful to manipulate the perception of reality. “The ethical decadence of real power is disguised, thanks to marketing and false information, useful tools in the hands of those with greater resources to employ them to shape public opinion.” (#29) He does not seem to notice that today, the world’s most powerful and influential voices are aligned against faith and family—and in this apostolic exhortation he is reinforcing their message.

At last, the spiritual aspect

Sections 4 and 5 of Laudate Deum are devoted to the sort of detailed analysis of international climate conferences that we might expect from a policy wonk rather than a Successor of St. Peter. (Section 4 is entitled: “Climate conferences: progress and failures;” Section 5 is “What to expect from the COP28 in Dubai?”) But finally, in Section 6, the Pope turns to “Spiritual Motivations.”

“I cannot fail in this regard to remind the Catholic faithful of the motivations born of their faith,” the Pope says as he opens this concluding section. (This is one of the two times the word “Catholic” appears in the document.) In the next paragraph he offers two short quotations from the Old Testament. In the paragraphs that follow he cites his own encyclical, Laudato Si’ eleven times. There is no reference in this section to the Gospel, to the Church Fathers, or to previous statements of the papal magisterium. In fact, apart from a citation of Pope Paul VI, in a message to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, not a single footnote refers to any Church authority that predates the current pontificate.

As the Synod on Synodality opens its deliberations in Rome, Pope Francis is declining to fill the traditional role of the Roman Pontiff: to speak with clarity, easing the spreading doubts on fundamental doctrinal issues. But in Laudate Deum he makes very clear and forceful statements on disputed questions that do not involve the fundamental deposit of the faith. Faithful Catholics might pray that, as they discuss the governance of the Church, the Synod participants might remind the Pope of his own proper teaching role, and the limits thereof.

A final observation: In the penultimate paragraph of this document, in his discussion of “spiritual motivations,” Pope Francis makes the misleading observation that “emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China…” By using the per-capita statistic, he downplays the role of China as the world’s leading source of pollution. And he reminds American readers of the peculiar hostility that he consistently shows toward our country.


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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 05, 2023 11:38 PM ET USA

    Since you and Lucius brought it up, the Galileo trials were sort of based on science, but more on philosophy. The best astronomical observations of the age could not verify the heliocentric over the geocentric model. Thus the Church gave precedence to Aristotle's geocentric philosophy. However, when the earth's motion through space was established by James Bradley in 1729, the Church accepted it a little more than a decade later after it was verified. In 1851 Foucault established earth rotation.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Oct. 05, 2023 12:05 PM ET USA

    Eleven years ago, I asked in Chemical & Engineering News the four critical questions science had to answer: 1) are global T's rising enough to cause catastrophic change and do natural forces keep them in check? 2) If yes and no, then is temperature rise desirable or not? 3) Did humans make it happen significantly? 4) Can international changes ameliorate the problem? I said before we do anything drastic, we need scientific answers. We don't have them yet, do we?

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 05, 2023 11:26 AM ET USA

    The enemies of Jesus Christ can take a break, and do absolutely nothing while Francis and his friends run the show. The whole moral filth, homosexuality, and theological drivel stayed mostly concealed but had existed and grew for decades, harming the Church from within. Now it all bubbled up to the surface to be fully exposed for what it is. Who would've thought before Francis that most of Catholic bishops in Germany want to grant their blessings for sodomy? Or that Rupnik would still be priest?

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 05, 2023 10:48 AM ET USA

    The claim that the majority of scientists agree with something considered PC is questionable. It is not easy for a scientist to publish a paper that disagrees with the progressive narrative these days.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 05, 2023 2:31 AM ET USA

    I decided to invest the 20 minutes needed to read the document. As usual, the emphasis is high on the secular and light on the Catholic. The fear of promoting true religion, not the scandalous, cowardly imposter that abuses the orthodox and the innocent, is a scandal of monumental proportion. True religion is the answer, bold and decisive. But instead we get only half the truth--the secular half--statistics--and an anemic groveling. What is needed most is conversion of the world to true religion

  • Posted by: mhains8491 - Oct. 05, 2023 12:56 AM ET USA

    The Lord is his eternal wisdom sent Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as bastions of truth, clarity and light so the faithful could endure the train wreak of the current Holy Father. Still it is a heavy cross to bear. Trust in the Lord.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Oct. 04, 2023 10:07 PM ET USA

    Galileo does not fit. The Church insisted Galileo hold his view as hypothesis. The full proof only occurred in 1838 with the observance of the stellar parallax. Francis preaches human-caused climate change, a scientific question not Catholic doctrine! Francis then takes pathetic anti-U.S.shots re pollution in favor of communist China while he abandoned the Church to the same communist gov't. An Argentine writer opined: check his cites; it appears he's abandoning the Church of Christ. God help us

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 04, 2023 9:07 PM ET USA

    Thanks for reading it. Someone besides Joe Biden has to.

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Oct. 04, 2023 6:10 PM ET USA

    Thanks for saving me the time of reading that drivel, but honestly, I expected it to be bad. I have read about 75% of Laudato Si, so I fully expected only more of the same. What can one say about such dangerously naive opinions expressed by Pope Francis? He means well? Still, if I were a betting man, I'd lay 3 to 1 that the Trinity are ribbing each other with that frequent and hearty retort, But he means well, right? Ar, ar, ar!

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Oct. 04, 2023 5:37 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis is inviting richly deserved ridicule upon himself personally and upon the Catholic Church. I can feel your astonishment at the utter hubris of this unwarranted abuse of his office. He certainly chose a regrettable time to release this at the inception of what is surely going to be a theological three ring circus. I wish I were blest with the talent of Paul Mankowski, but I pray that I am blest with his faithfulness.