Climate change is often a subject for discussion these days, and Pope Benedict XVI has regularly added his voice to concerns about the environment.
But many are skeptical about the real extent of climate change and see it as a new kind of religion that could be damaging in itself. Father Paul Haffner, a professor of theology at Regina Apostolorum University in Rome, discussed how Catholics should approach this issue.
Father Haffner is also a scientist and has written a recent book on the subject entitled Towards a Theology of the Environment.
How concerned should a Catholic be about the environment?
What I say in my book and in my classes is that there is a relationship between ecology as a science and ecologism as an ideology.
Often, environmental issues are cloaked in a lot of ideology, so a Catholic needs discernment which involves, certainly, philosophy, and also theology and science. That is my specialization — the relationship between philosophy, theology and science. So you have to see what’s hard science in this environmental debate because, in fact, often science itself is manipulated by ideologies that often, one must say, are pushing things like population control and other things.
That’s an agenda that they have, and they’re imposing a pseudoscientific argument, whereas science and economics has indicated that where you have population growth you also have economic development. Secular economists hold that now, as I quote in my book.
So the Catholic has to be very wary of distinguishing between science and ecology and any ideological manipulation, which are very often overlaid on that issue. The concern also regarding the environment has to be weighed with other issues, and the environment has to be seen in a global context and in relationship with other disciplines; otherwise, it can become a type of fanaticism.
It becomes another religion?
Another religion, but also an ideology, and so it becomes a problem. You can spend so much money on resolving environmental issues that you end up destroying the economy. So you have to weigh up what you do for the environment against what’s actually economically feasible.
There’s a certain judgment that has to be made, and we have to avoid a sort of extremism. I say in the book that on the one hand it’s true that big business sometimes has its own axe to grind and so is apparently less concerned about environmental issues. But at the same time, environmentalists also have an axe to grind.
So a Catholic can offer a very positive contribution, not just a balancing act, but a realist type of approach where the environment is respected. I put in the book that there’s a long Christian tradition of environmental care, starting well before St. Francis and St. Benedict.
We are heirs to that tradition, and so we can do a lot of good for the environment. But we need to see it in a global context, which puts the human person — woman and man — at the center of the issue, whereas the environmentalists often tend to relegate man and woman as sort of extras on a cosmic stage. They see the environment and the cosmos as the center, and that “cosmo-centrism” is what I often condemn in the book.
A spokeswoman for Greenpeace told me recently that they no longer campaign for birth control, that was something they did in the 1970s and 1980s, but now they claim not to be so concerned about such issues. Is that true?
I doubt that, because on the Pope’s recent visit to Africa, the secular press was very ideological, so the whole ideological agenda of birth control is still very much around. They probably deny that in order to invite collaboration.
I would say Catholics need to be very wary of collaborating with these groups because they have a very strong ideological stance. There are Christian environmental groups in different countries, and maybe Catholics can look into those. But, also, environmental work starts at home.
Where you are responsible in small things, Our Lord says, you can be entrusted to a lot. So ecological responsibility is part of a whole lifestyle which is based on the beatitudes, for example.
If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves. If you’re faithful in a lot of areas, the ecological thing will fit into place.
How valid is the global warming theory, in your view?
I go into that in the book. There are many views on this, and the Vatican has taken the middle ground: On the one hand, we mustn’t go into a sort of exaggerated panic about global warming, but, on the other hand, we can’t ignore it.
You have to distinguish between climate change, which is partly non-manmade; it’s partly “natural” — the climate is dynamic.
It’s always changing?
Always changing, but whether this is only contributed to by man’s abuse or not still remains to be seen. Scientists are not unanimous on this issue. It’s a bandwagon a lot of politicians have jumped on.
Would you say, as some argue, that global warming concerns are based on consensus rather than fact?
That’s generous, because there isn’t a complete consensus on global warming. There are quite significant people who disagree, and I cite them in the book. But they’re often brushed to one side, and so it raises the question about science, peer review, consensus, and the actual truth in science that we’re trying to arrive at.
Also, there’s a certain period in which to evaluate global warming. The measurements that have been made in terms of man’s contribution to damage to the climate have been carried out over a relatively small number of years, whereas these changes have occurred over a large number of years. So one has to be a little skeptical of scientific findings.
What I would be against is making global warming into a type of dogma and, at the same time, then saying, “If we have global warming, then we have too much human activity.” If there’s too much human activity, it will either damage the economy or we will want to reduce the population, and these population control freaks will come onto the stage again.
So, yes, we take the scientific results seriously, but they need to be evaluated.
Science is not a monolith; it is subject to change and development, so we mustn’t make rash moves about global warming until we’ve properly evaluated the means. There’s a whole economic consequence if we make enormous changes — these would be very costly. So at this particular period in the world economy, can we afford it?
It’s something we as Christians are concerned about, but, at the same time, we’re also concerned about the effects of political, scientific actions which might be carried out because of more ideological than scientific considerations.
Are you in no doubt that climate change is happening?
I’m in no doubt about climate change, but I’m not sure about the extent human activity has brought about this climate change. It probably has affected it, but I’m not sure about the extent to which it has. When you see alarmism in the newspaper, as a scientist, you tend to ask questions.
I’ve seen the reports; for instance, the level of the seas rising — you’ve got to read that very carefully — and how you understand it.
Pope Benedict is very keen on this issue — he has been called the first “green” Pope, and so forth. What is your view on his concern for the environment?
The Pope is very ecologically aware, and it must be also said that John Paul II was as well, because he produced the first complete papal statement on the environment — “Peace with God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation” on Jan. 1, 1990 — and plenty of other documents.
One main chapter in my book deals with papal teaching, which, in fact, goes back to Pius XII. Pius XII really talked about the environment. So apart from being behind the environmental initiative, the Church has been ahead, I would say.
The Church often argues for stewardship of creation. What are your views on this?
Stewardship is part of the picture, I would say.
In Western Christendom, we tend to look at stewardship, while in Eastern Christendom each Christian is seen as exercising a priestly role in creation.
In the West, as I put in the book, the cosmos is seen as a house in which woman and man are seen as stewards. In the East, the cosmos is seen as a kind of temple in which woman and man are priests — priests as in the people of God, of course.
Edward Pentin writes