On Climate Change, Pope Francis Builds on His Predecessors’ Positions

But some Catholic analysts maintain the Church’s strong stance at the climate conference in Paris is flawed in some respects.

Cardinal Peter Turkson discusses Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si at a June press conference at the Vatican.
Cardinal Peter Turkson discusses Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si at a June press conference at the Vatican. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis and the Holy See have been fervently pushing for a legally binding agreement on combating climate change in recent weeks, the chief objective of a multilateral United Nations meeting in Paris that wraps up today.

The COP21 Climate Change Conference, which has been taking place since Nov. 30 in Le Bourget near Paris, has been trying to achieve — for the first time in more than 20 years of U.N. talks — a legally binding and universal agreement to keep global warming below 2° Celsius.

At the time of writing, the talks looked like they were extending into Saturday, having been held up by wrangling over how much funding developed countries would be willing to pay poorer countries to respond to climate change and whether countries would agree on increasing their commitment to lower emissions.

The precise nature of the Holy See’s position on climate change, which is arguably even stronger than in Pope Francis’ 2015 environment encyclical Laudato Si (the papal document said the Church had “no reason to offer a definitive opinion” on climate change, saying an “honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views”), has been crystallized over the past two weeks, beginning with comments the Holy Father made in Kenya.

Speaking to the U.N. Office in Nairobi Nov. 26, the Pope said the world is facing a “grave environmental crisis” and warned that a failure at the U.N. climate summit would be “catastrophic.” He was equally forceful a few days later, telling reporters on the papal plane back from Africa that an agreement on climate change was needed to save a world “at the limits of suicide.”

His concern was echoed by Holy See delegates at COP21, who have been similarly committed in their comments, sweeping away any ambiguity that might have existed over the Vatican’s position on the science.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, called for a “fair, legally binding and truly transformational agreement,” telling the Paris meeting on Dec. that COP21 “must be ambitious” because “when the environment is assaulted, the poor, least able to defend themselves, suffer most.”

In his own Nov. 30 remarks to delegates, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, underlined “global solidarity” and laid out important factors to consider in any agreement, such as a “clear ethical orientation,” appropriate guidelines for governments and the private sector and effective follow-ups.

The Holy See fielded a large delegation that, as well as Cardinals Parolin and Turkson, included other Vatican officials and representatives from Caritas and CIDSE, an international alliance of Catholic development agencies. 


Papal Pronouncements on the Environment

But many are wondering how the Holy See came to have such a clear and strong position on the science that, although backed by 800 U.N. scientists, remains highly contested by many others, as well as promoted by the population control lobby.

To some extent, the answer can be found by looking back into the history of papal pronouncements on environmental issues. Safeguarding the environment has been mentioned to some degree in all recent social encyclicals, but successive popes have increasingly waded into the scientific minutiae of the effects of human activity on ecosystems.

The environment first took on a more prominent role when Blessed Paul VI warned in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens of the “tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity and an “ill-considered exploitation of nature.” He later predicted an “ecological catastrophe” caused by the explosive growth of industrial civilization and stressed the urgent need for “a radical change in the conduct of humanity.”

Pope St. John Paul was the first pope to call for an ecological conversion and introduced the theme of human ecology. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” He would then go on to address the issue in additional detail in his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, “Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation.”

Benedict XVI expanded further on ecology, introducing an ecology of peace and social ecology. “The book of nature is one and indivisible,” he wrote in his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, adding that it encompasses the environment, life, sexuality, the family and social relations. “The deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence,” he said.

But most significantly, Benedict was the first pope to refer to climate change, mentioning it on seven occasions during his pontificate, the first time in 2007. He also became the first pope to wade into the particulars of safeguarding the environment, trumpeting the “immense potential” of solar energy (installing it at the Vatican and signing a U.N. protocol), preserving water systems, “whose stability could be seriously jeopardized by climate change,” and implementing “appropriate policies for the management of forests.”


Pope Francis’ More-Detailed Approach

Francis has entered into considerably more detail, devoting a whole sub-chapter to climate change in his encyclical Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home), saying it is a “ global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods.” He has also delved into specific scientific areas and discussed a whole range of subjects, from the “decomposition of frozen organic material” to the “disappearance of ecosystems sustained by mangrove swamps.”

The Holy Father has backed up his words with gestures: On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he allowed environmentalist groups to stage a controversial light show on St. Peter’s Basilica as part of a lobbying attempt to achieve what one of the organizers called “the most ambitious” deal in Paris and even donated his shoes in a show of solidarity with hundreds of climate-change marches taking place across the globe. 

But the encyclical and the extent to which the Pope and the Holy See have cheered on the U.N.’s push for a universal agreement is a step too far for some. Father Robert Sirico, founding president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, believes the Church’s advocacy gives the impression that the Church “doesn’t have confidence in her own competence,” instead giving the mistaken impression that “we’re scientists.”

Father Sirico said it’s not a matter of “ignoring the claims of science,” but added that he was “puzzled” by Laudato Si for not beginning with “the insights of Revelation on this subject” and instead plunging “immediately into making a series of empirical claims.”


Economic Consequences

Lord Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, a prominent climate-change skeptic, saw what he called the Holy See's “me-too endorsement” in Paris of climate-change science as a “sad rejection and repudiation” of the Church’s “mission to the poor.” By depriving poor nations of fossil fuels, he believes it will keep poor countries poor and continue to cost millions of lives. By siding with those promoting climate-change science, history will remember the Pope “unkindly,” he predicted.

Indeed, the cost to poor countries of anti-climate change policies promoted by U.N. processes is something that Riccardo Cascioli, president of the European Study Center on Population, Environment and Development, views as indefensible. “Until now, man has always tried to defend himself from nature, but now, with the Kyoto protocol [the U.N.’s 1997 agreement to cut emissions] and ideology, that’s all changed, and we are spending a lot of money to avoid natural laws,” he said.

Cascioli argues that countries should be investing in defending themselves from natural disasters, rather than spending vast amounts of money on trying to change the climate — something he also believes will adversely affect the poorest countries.


Cardinal Turkson

But for Cardinal Turkson, Laudato Si and the Pope’s advocacy for climate-change science are in continuity with his predecessors and build on what they said on the environment. The Pope’s position reflects his experience as a pastor, the cardinal told the Register; the cardinal feels Francis has been “prudent” when it comes to the subject of climate change.

The Pope, who has listened to bishops explaining how their islands are disappearing or ecosystems are being destroyed, is “not claiming any dogmatic position” or an “article of faith,” Cardinal Turkson said, but he recognized that climate change can be evidenced, even if “difficult to evaluate.”

“A whole lot of temptations are involved in this,” he said, referring to potential costs involved, but he believes, like the Pope, that a multifaceted approach is needed — one that tackles not only climate-change prevention, but also implementing defenses against natural disasters. The cardinal added, “Everyone working in Paris deserves our prayer, because some may come and say it’s an occasion to make money.”

Some in the Vatican, however, see the Pope’s position as more binding on the faithful. At a Dec. 3 Acton Institute conference on Laudato Si in Rome, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, insisted the Pope’s support for climate-change science is not mere opinion, but part of the ordinary magisterium, and so is owed the same obedience by the faithful as the recognition that abortion is a mortal sin (which is also part of the ordinary magisterium, he pointed out).

“When the Pope supports this because the majority tell him that scientific opinion thinks this, this isn’t an opinion; this is magisterium,” he said, stressing it’s not dogma and infallible, but still demands a level of obedience.

Cardinal Turkson, however, said he was aware of the differences of opinion and has received many experts in his offices who have argued that the science is not conclusive enough.

“Wisdom demands that we take a dispassionate look at it and try to do the one thing that Catholic social teaching often talks about: the well-being of the human being in all these situations,” he said.


‘It’s About Respect for Nature’

That means engaging with the U.N., Cardinal Turkson stressed, even if the international body sometimes supports policies antithetical to Church teaching. And with Francis’ popular global standing, the cardinal said his moral voice is being heard.

“There has never been a pope whose writings have been quoted so profusely at a meeting like this one,” Cardinal Turkson noted. “And when the quotes are read, it’s not what the Pope said about climate change; it’s about what the Pope has said about respect for nature.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.