‘The Catholic Church’s View of Ecology Starts and Ends With Creation’

Father Paul Haffner says the Catholic Church shouldn’t be too hasty to accept the climate change worldview currently being promoted by the U.N. and others.

Father Haffner presenting Pope Francis a copy of one of his books at a Pontifical Academy of Sciences conference in 2017.
Father Haffner presenting Pope Francis a copy of one of his books at a Pontifical Academy of Sciences conference in 2017. (photo: Edward Pentin)

ROME — Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin will be the last head of government to address the U..N.’s 26th climate change conference in Glasgow (COP26) Tuesday afternoon

The cardinal gave a clue about what he will say, telling Vatican News Oct. 30 that he hopes COP26 will “reaffirm the centrality of multilateralism and of action” and that “integral ecology”— treating peace, justice and the preservation of justice as interconnected themes — will be taken into consideration. 

He did not mention the Church’s long-held Christological approach to the environment but rather echoed other world leaders in stressing the urgency for action, and repeated Pope Francis’ frequent appeals to combat a “throwaway society” by means of “eco-sustainability.” 

Many of these views are almost identical to the U.N.’s own goals for the meeting and noticeably omitted are words articulating the Catholic Church’s perspective on the climate and the Earth’s future. 

Father Paul Haffner, author of Towards a Theology of the Environment (Gracewing), takes an approach not so much focusing on socio-political solutions but rather on key principles and values that underpin the Church’s prophetic witness. “We don’t want any bandwagon,” he says. “We also want to inspire these people, not be led by them, but to lead them.”

Father Haffner, a lecturer in systematic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, spoke recently to the Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin.  


 Father Haffner, the Holy See seems to only emphasize one viewpoint about climate change, namely the scientific one held by the U.N. with minor variations. Why do you think it doesn’t often convey the full breadth of Church teaching on this issue? 

Before you get into the practical details of climate change, you have to have a Christian viewpoint on ecology which starts with creation, the fall, redemption and the new Creation. Creation you need because the cosmos didn’t come into being by itself. God created it. You need the Incarnation and redemption because Christ assumed human nature and redeemed us. A new creation will be given to us because this one is passing and temporary. Therefore you can’t give the universe a God-like quality and then something goes a bit pear-shaped like climate change, you can’t get so upset. 

So the U.N. view, we know, is arrived at by a rather fragile consensus, whereas our Christian view, Eastern and Western, is arrived at by Revelation. So it’s two different pictures. Climate change is something not all scientists are agreed upon anyway. There are people, for example, who would say climate change always occurred because the climate is never exactly the same, but for the Church to buy into a particular vision of climate change, embraced by the U.N. and several world governments worldwide, is a bit dangerous. Like the Galileo affair — you buy into one position and then the science can wrong-foot you. So we should steer very, very attentively in such troubled waters. 


It’s threatening to be a sort of Galileo in reverse?

Exactly. I would say we need to very clear of one position: We should be stating principles, perhaps not in a moralistic way, but we would be affirming, “This is a Catholic Christian view of creation which we want to propose to you and from there you have to work out the answers by discussion, scientific research, economic considerations, political bargaining etc.” The Church doesn’t get into that so much.

Action is based on being, therefore the ethical aspect is based on a theology of creation and redemption as applied to creation. So it’s not as if, as Gaudium et Spes puts it, the Church has ready answers to every question (33.2). So it shouldn’t have an easy answer on this point. And the reason is not because we’re frightened of being wrong-footed. We also don’t want to force people. It seems totally crazy to specify too many details — that we should accept “climate change the dogma.” It might seem to be right but it’s not on the level of a dogmatic declaration. 


Do you think it has become a dogma with the help of the Church?

Unfortunately [yes], because you see there is [Karl] Popper’s principle of falsification in science [Popper’s principle suggests that for a theory to be considered scientific it must be able to be tested and conceivably proven false].

I’m not a believer in Popper myself, but with this principle you need a series of successive verifications of theory, but even then, you can’t dogmatize the theory in science. Science is always evolving. Climate science is not an exact science; it’s very approximate because you can’t measure it so easily. 


Some proponents of the U.N.'s view speak of a climate religion, that it has taken on religious characteristics, becoming almost an article of faith. Does this worldview not make human beings an enemy of creation?

It’s a new age religion, basically cosmo-centricism whereby the cosmos is placed at the center, the human being is a nuisance, and you want to push him or her aside. Therefore abortion, euthanasia, and depopulation of course, are all a part of this wicked agenda, which obviously wants the person put in second and third place and the exaltation of animals, putting them on the same level of human beings. The biblical and traditional teaching is that men and women are at the apex of the created world. Hierarchy in creation exists and this is forgotten because what is being promoted is basically ecologism, as we call it — a socialistic or communistic ideology which wants to level everything out and forget there is a hierarchy in which the human person is the apex, under God, under Christ, with dominion over creation.


Why do you think the Vatican does not appear to be reinforcing much or any of this? Why is it not getting out into the climate control arena?

I have no inside information, but it looks like to me there are pressure groups leaning on the Vatican as there always have been and persuading them to accept a worldview which is the accepted view — an unquestioned world view that is totally contrary to the faith which we believe cherish, uphold and defend. 


And yet we're taught to safeguard creation so it’s right we should try to combat climate change if it exists?

The Church cannot dictate how we should do that in minute detail. She says we should look after creation as “priests” and stewards and leaves it to our initiative. We don’t give too many details and that’s the genius of the Eastern tradition. Then we won’t get caught by these socialist, communist pressure groups and ideologies. We remember also that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. This creation will not last forever. We have no permanent home in this current world, so to try and deify or permanentize this world as if it’s something we’ve got to preserve forever, is effectively adoring it. We’re adoring a false God. We adore the Lord in his Christ, so we try to look after the house in which we live, realising this house will not last forever. 


Would you argue that the Holy See is fertile ground for such an ideology, as the Vatican has, as some argue, been too focused on the temporal for the past 50 years?

Yes, it has been going on a long time. It’s a very easy temptation. I mean the Israelites in the Old Testament very easily abandoned the faith and worshiped the golden calf. So it’s a constant temptation and unless you have not so much discipline but rather eyes on the Lord then in prayer, without fussing too much about systems or spiritualities, then you have that danger. When you’re more interested in your power, glory and money and approval by the world then things start to go wrong. 

I don’t make any judgment about individual priests and bishops but it’s a constant temptation to conform yourself to what everyone is saying in the world about climate change, global warming — all these buzzwords. But a lot of the people who talk about it haven’t studied the science behind it. The science behind it is not exact science, so we should be very sparing about what bandwagon we should jump on. The only one all Christians want to jump on is the bandwagon of the Gospel and Gospel values and leave all the rest, whether they’re from the UN or NGOs or local government or regional government, nations, the European Union — we don’t want any other bandwagon. We also want to inspire these people, not be led by them, but to lead them. That’s the bottom line.