Should we heed Pope Francis on global warming?

  • By Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk Tribune News Service
  • Friday, January 2, 2015 2:09pm
  • OpinionCommentary

Word out of the Vatican is that Pope Francis will soon call the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to action on climate change, issuing an encyclical that makes the moral and scientific case for a new global climate treaty.

The stance is likely to run afoul of conservatives — and even conservative Catholics, like House Speaker John Boehner, who have long resisted government efforts to reduce carbon emissions said to accelerate climate change.

What to make of the pope’s coming encyclical? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

Yes, says Joel Mathis

If nothing else, the response to Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change should be hilarious.

Yes, there are a lot of nuances regarding Catholic doctrine that are about to be obscured in the debate over the pope and climate change, but the essential underlying truth isn’t that hard to discern: An encyclical is not a throwaway statement on the part of the pope. It’s meant to guide Catholic understanding on important issues.

And on an important issue — climate change — a great many American conservatives who are also Catholic will decide they simply don’t want to hear what Pope Francis has to say. Watching their contortions is going to be most amusing.

Too much schadenfreude? Sorry. If you’re a liberal outside the faith, it’s hard not to notice that on a couple of issues that they share viewpoints with the pope and church doctrine — issues such as gay marriage and abortion — conservatives insist on rigid adherence, going so far as to attempt to deny communion to many Catholic Democrats who don’t believe they should apply Catholic doctrine to the wider, secular society.

If the pope speaks out against invading Iraq, though, suddenly his views are debatable. If he suggests that capitalism has some downsides, well, he just doesn’t understand economics. (Jesus, who chased moneychangers out of the temple, might be amused at that.) And if he says we should maybe burn a little less coal, suddenly followers are scrambling to contain his teachings to a religious or moral context, keeping politics and everyday life as separate realms to be left untouched by his teachings.

Turns out conservatives can be “cafeteria Catholics” every bit as much as those squishy liberals!

For a couple of decades, both liberals and conservatives have bought into the idea that the pope and the church basically function as the Republican Party at prayer. If the pope’s newest pronouncement does nothing but inadvertently disabuse us of that notion, it will be a real blessing to all of us.

No, says Ben Boychuk

On theological and moral subjects, Pope Francis’s authority among Catholics is more or less unquestioned. But it will be interesting to learn what the Holy Father thinks he knows about climatology.

Among the green movement’s far left-leaning precincts, reaction to the news of the Pope’s reported stance has been amazing to watch. Many of these same people have nothing but contempt for the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion and marriage. But when the pontiff comes out on behalf of their cause du jour, he’s “the cool pope.”

The trouble is, the media reaction has fostered a great deal of misunderstanding about what the pope may or may not be doing.

It’s fair to say most non-Catholics don’t understand the doctrine of papal infallibility. On fundamental tenets of faith and morals, the pope speaks without error. But not everything the pope says comes “from the chair.”

Yes, the church’s teaching on the environment carries great weight. Good stewardship is a moral obligation, and wanton disregard for the environment is a sin, whether one is Catholic or not.

But the church’s line on global warming is more of a piece with its teaching on immigration and its general opposition to the death penalty. Those all happen to be controversial political questions — not matters of church doctrine that every Catholic must accept. If it isn’t doctrine, it’s debatable.

Bear in mind, too, the pope’s encyclical won’t appear until March. The hype surrounding what the pope may say often exceeds the reality of what he ends up saying. His signals tend to be mixed, to put it mildly.

In any event, Catholic teaching doesn’t quite jibe with the core tenets of the Church of Global Warming, which are often anti-capitalist, anti-growth, and at times even anti-human. It’s hard to imagine the pope agreeing with Al Gore, for example, that “fertility management” is a viable moral strategy for tackling global warming.

Francis no doubt will say plenty about the environment for Catholics to challenge. But not even “the cool pope” will depart from fundamental church teachings about life.

Ben Boychuk (bboychukcity-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathisgmail.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.

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