New Papal Document Puts Climate Change Before Faith

Laudate Deum, the new apostolic exhortation released by the Vatican on October 4, is an astonishing document, in which Pope Francis uses his authority to make definitive judgements—not on questions of faith and morals, but on scientific and political questions that are still under debate.

In the Galileo controversy, some Church leaders unwisely sought to settle a scientific debate by invoking ecclesiastical authority. In this new document Pope Francis takes the same approach to the issue of climate change, insisting that only radical economic and political reforms can stave off environmental disaster.

Laudate Deum is a follow-up to Laudato Si’, the environmental encyclical that the Pope released in May 2015. At the start of the new document (paragraph #2), the Pontiff says that he feels compelled to speak out again because of the urgency of the crisis; “I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”

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Laudate Deum is a comparatively short document—just over 7,500 words, as opposed to the 40,000-word bulk of Laudato Si’. But the text conveys a clear sense of impatience, a determination to stir consciences. Yet this apostolic exhortation is not a particularly religious document. In fact the word “conscience” appears only three times, while secular terms proliferate: “climate” appear 42 times, “global” 31.

As a matter of fact, in this exhortation—addressed “to all people of good will”—the Pope mentions the name of Jesus only three times, twice in the opening paragraph. “Lord” is never used, nor are “sin,” “salvation,” “redemption,” or “prayer.” Only toward the end of the document—beginning with paragraph #61—does Pope Francis turn his attention to “spiritual motivations.”

“It is no longer possible to doubt the human—‘anthropic’—origin of climate change,” the Pope writes (#11). That statement, an essential key to the argument of the entire document, is plainly, demonstrably wrong.

It undeniably is possible to doubt that human actions are responsible for climate change, because many people do doubt it—including many scientists with excellent credentials. Personally I find the skeptics’ arguments persuasive. Of course my opinion carries little weight, because I am not a scientist. But then Pope Francis, too, is not a professional scientist, and while his authority as Roman Pontiff enables him to speak with authority on doctrinal issues, that authority does not extend to scientific controversies.

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