Pope Francis and climate change: why Catholic skeptics are so alarmed

On Tuesday, the Vatican hosted a conference on the moral dimensions of climate change, and the pope is said to have prepared a major encyclical on the environment.

L'Ossservatore Romano/AP
Pope Francis met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Vatican on Tuesday. The UN chief praised Pope Francis for framing climate change as an urgent moral imperative.

With Pope Francis poised to issue a full-throated call to address the looming threats of climate change this year, conservative Catholic skeptics are crying foul.

The pope has already prepared a major encyclical – or moral guide for the globe’s 1.2 billion Catholics – which later this year will stress the imperative of addressing human-caused global warming. And on Tuesday, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and other organizations hosted a summit at the Vatican called “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development,” billed as a meeting to help strengthen “the global consensus” on the issue.

Both are parts of the Vatican’s increasing efforts to influence this year’s United Nation’s Climate Change Conference, which meets in Paris this December with the goal of getting the nations of the world to establish legally-binding protocols to protect the climate.

It’s the kind of organized effort that sets many conservative skeptics’ teeth on edge. And even though previous popes issued similar teachings on the environment, Francis has sparked a particularly vocal response. For Catholic conservatives, both in the US and overseas, Francis’s progressive views, combined with his overwhelming popularity with the laity, represents a challenge that some critics see as moving from the theological realm to the political. But there is no question that his voice reaches farther – on this and other social issues – than his predecessor.

“Francis will get a hearing on this issue that I think the previous popes, Benedict and John Paul II, did not have,” says Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., who is also a Catholic priest.

Indeed, on Monday, conservative groups held a press conference in Rome to denounce the pope’s stance on the environment.

“You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance,” said Christopher Monckton, a former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a devoted Catholic who has long been a leader climate skeptic movement. “Stand back and listen to both sides, and do not take sides in politics," he said, according to The National Catholic Reporter.

Pope Benedict, who was often called “the Green Pope” during his tenure, issued similar calls to protect the environment, though criticism was more muted for the staunchly theologically-conservative pope. 

“If we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us," Benedict said during the 2010 World Day of Peace. Under his leadership, too, the Pontifical Academy of Science released a report that urged world leaders to cut emissions and prepare for the impact of a changing climate, even as Benedict instituted a number of green initiatives for Vatican City, an independent country.

But Benedict’s staid and cerebral style was far from the populist charisma and more pastorally-oriented focus of Francis, who is widely adored by the Catholic laity, both in the US and around the world.

And with Francis’s more progressive emphasis on the poor and oppressed around the world – as well as his shift in pastoral tone toward gay, lesbian, and divorced Catholics – his pronouncements on the environment could have a much greater impact, many observers say.

“Francis’s moral authority is so overwhelmingly huge throughout the world, and I think that poses a huge problem for conservatives,” says Father Morrill. “And it poses a dilemma for them – an ironic dilemma, as the old saying goes, how everybody turns out to be a cafeteria Catholic, picking and choosing what popes say, and marginalizing others, such as teachings on climate change.”

Benedict’s edicts about the environment, while criticized, too, never received the kind of public and press-friendly opposition as the current pontiff, who is seen as guided by the Holy Spirit, in traditional Catholic teaching.

“The Holy Father is being misled by ‘experts’ at the United Nations who have proven unworthy of his trust,” Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago, and one of the organizers of the press conference denouncing Francis on Monday. 

“Humans are not causing a climate crisis on God’s Green Earth – in fact, they are fulfilling their Biblical duty to protect and use it for the benefit of humanity,” Mr. Bast continued in a statement released Monday. “Though Pope Francis’s heart is surely in the right place, he would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations’ unscientific agenda on the climate,” he said in a statement, contradicting the vast majority of world’s climate scientists.

Francis’s popularity among Catholics could prove politically difficult for many Catholic Republicans, including presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum, most of whom, too, express skepticism about the science of climate change. 

But Francis is planning to emphasize the issue more and more this year before the UN Conference in Paris.   

“For Francis, his uniqueness as an authority resides in the quite remarkable moral capital he’s built up from the start,” Morrill says. “People in governments – and not just Christian and Catholics, but people in the UN and other bodies – people have made a judgement perceiving his personal moral authority and wisdom and knowledge of our times. That is what bears the authority – there’s the objective moral authority of the papacy, but this other authority, I think, that is making all the difference.”  

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