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The Pope and Climate Change

June 23, 2015

On June 18th Pope Francis issued an encyclical on climate change in which he said that climate change was caused by humans (at least primarily), caused harm, and should be addressed. The encyclical’s main ideas had floated around for months before that and a leaked draft of the encyclical appeared the Monday before the official release. The encyclical creates an interesting issue for conservative American politicians, many of whom play up their Christian faith and also deny climate change (or at least that it is human-caused).

One of the standard lines is that the Pope is just out of line to issue an encyclical on this issue. Jeb Bush said that religion, “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Rick Santorum criticized the Pope for speaking on science and suggested leaving science to the scientists. Months ago I heard a conservative commentator on a news show make the claim that the Pope should stay out of politics and focus on religion when asked to comment about news of this encyclical. This general idea has clearly been widely adopted – but it’s crazy.

Now, one common criticism of these claims is that people like Bush and Santorum have been pretty up-front about mixing their religion and politics before. Backing off now seems hypocritical[1]. The reason I won’t be discussing this criticism further is that it isn’t a criticism of the argument per se but of the arguer. However, the arguments are all terrible in the abstract and I wish to demonstrate that, not that politicians are (surprise!) hypocrites. So, here are a few of the counter-arguments.

1) The Pope is not deciding an issue of science. While conservative American politicians like to pretend that climate change is the center of some active scientific debate it really isn’t. It’s the center of a debate that takes place mostly between scientists and non-scientists. While there are scientists who don’t believe that the earth’s (demonstrable) climate change is caused by humans they are in a small minority and are concentrated in less-relevant fields[2]. Furthermore, the scientists who argue against the majority position now aren’t arguing that the world isn’t warming (which they used to) but that humans aren’t causing the warming. At the level of general overview it would appear that the case for the majority viewpoint is only getting better.

Imagine, for a second, that the Pope accepted Rick Santorum’s admonition to leave science to the scientists and that the Pope wished to know about climate change. The only way for him to do this (without doing science himself) would be to see what scientists think and so he would quite easily decide that the earth is warming because of human activity – the majority of scientists think so and the viewpoint has been gaining strength. So the Pope isn’t actively weighing in on science, he’s allowing scientists to tell him what they think (unlike people like Santorum, who is a politician doing science) and then making comments about this.

2) The Pope is a politician. Vatican City is its own country. The Pope is a head of state. Now, one could ask that the Pope stay out of American politics in much the same way that the Chinese routinely ask America to stay out of Chinese politics but that line is fuzzier than asking the Pope to stay out of politics entirely since the Pope is also the head of an organization that owns land and has employees all across the world.

3) It is the Pope’s job to talk to us about climate change. And it’s his job to talk to us about the Internet, determinism, the sexual revolution, the tensions between India and Pakistan, the economic policies of the IMF, and hundreds of other things. The whole idea of the Pope is that the Pope (and his various advisors) study the world we live in and issue guidance to Catholics based on theological and moral precepts. When one says, “What is the Catholic view on competing on reality television contest shows?” the Pope is the final answer to that. And to do that the Pope must learn about the world we live in order to evaluate it in a moral and theological context. This means that when one says, “Should Catholics act to prevent climate change?” the Pope is also the final answer to that. When the Pope speaks about issues in the modern world he is doing exactly what he is there to do – to explain how ancient Christianity speaks to a changing world.

4) The distinctions that are key to these various arguments against the Pope’s issuance of the encyclical are imaginary. This is the counter-argument that I regard as actually interesting and the reason to write an article about this whole issue. The first three counter-arguments play ball by the same rules that the original arguers use. They recognize a private sphere of religion, a separate sphere of politics, and another sphere of science. They work by asserting either that the Pope isn’t encroaching on foreign territory or that it is actually his job to do so. This fourth counter-argument is different: it insists that the rules that the original arguers have established are the wrong rules.

Jeb Bush provides a great example of this when he says that religion should make us better as people but avoid the political realm. How does anyone do that? Being better people can’t be a private activity. Sure, you can have better thoughts or better prayers but it should also cause you to care more about others and to care more that society is structured in a just and kind manner. Christians have insisted that their care for others should result in political action everywhere from abolition and prison reform to abortion.

The problem that politicians are trying to dance around is that the Enlightenment political project is based on a fictional universe in which everything is neatly categorized in non-interacting boxes (something I discuss partway through this article). A politician can’t deny the Enlightenment fiction (it would be political suicide in a multicultural society, and a terrible idea in said society even aside from political aspirations) but in reality religion makes requests of politicians that cross the boundaries of those boxes. When the Pope says that climate change is a threat to humans (especially the world’s poor) and that Christians should care about this he’s made a claim that crosses from the Enlightenment box of private religion into boxes with labels like “economics” and “politics”. This is extremely dangerous for a politician who wants to appear pro-Catholic. Do you listen to the Pope (thereby denying the Enlightenment’s non-interacting boxes) or do you respect the imaginary boxes and deny the Pope?

One of the major issues with the Enlightenment fiction is that it diminishes moral authority. Here the Pope has tried to exert his moral authority to protect the world’s poor and has been criticized for it on the basis of imaginary fences that somehow prevent us from having to ask moral questions about our economic and political policies. This is, frankly, a terrible idea. We cannot grant sections of our world immunity from moral criticism.

One final lens to view this through: the divine right of kings. This is, oddly, both an admission that there are no clear divisions between aspects of the world and also the beginning of the Enlightenment project. A lot of people seem to think that the Church invented the divine right of kings. Actually, kings invented the divine right of kings to fight the Church (especially the Pope). The idea was that a king had been appointed by God and so the king could speak to religious issues and the Pope couldn’t interfere. The conflict is a simple one: religion claims to describe the nature of reality and define what is meaningful in life which gives it effective dominion over everything.  Politics claims the same dominion since it runs everything.  This is the strange way that the divine right of kings begins the Enlightenment project. The king (later the state) claims dominion over all things and then grants other entities (like religions, academies, and individuals) limited jurisdiction. These boxes aren’t part of the nature of the world but of the nature of the state. Of course the Pope will come into conflict with politicians. This isn’t because the Pope is going off and “doing politics” but because politics and religion are locked in a turf war. When politicians criticize the Pope for doing politics they are simply asserting their claim to the contested turf.


[1] It’s also remotely possible that these people have changed their minds. They haven’t said so but we do actually need to be more open to the idea of politicians changing their minds. The current attitude that any change of mind is wishy-washy flip-flopping is an attitude that prevents politicians from doing important things like expressing personal growth or learning from mistakes.

[2] This isn’t to say that there are no dissenters within the ranks of climate scientists. However, there are a few dissenters in every field. To find large numbers of scientists who don’t think that the climate is changing because of human activity one has to leave the fields of science that are relevant to climate science. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to see lists of climate change skeptics that are padded with medical doctors. Yes, medical doctors have a lot of training, and it is sort of like science. But none of it is about climate – it’s all focused around the human body.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. rsc2a permalink
    July 2, 2015 10:18 am

    “Aliens Cause Global Warming” ;)

    • Eric permalink
      July 3, 2015 8:29 pm

      I had forgotten what a terrible (and pompous) scientist Crichton was…all the more so since he was a sci-fi writer.


  1. Some interesting links elsewhere (June 2015) | Brambonius' blog in english

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