23 July 2015, The Tablet

Pope must resist right-wing assaults

Two counter-narratives are developing in the Catholic Church designed to neutralise some of the more trenchant teachings of Pope Francis. He will run into both of them when he visits the United States in September. One of them, concerning climate change, he will already have heard from the lips of Cardinal George Pell, the Australian who heads the Vatican’s financial machinery. This is the charge that the Pope stepped beyond his brief when he assumed, in his recent encyclical Laudato si’, that human activity was a significant cause of harmful climate change. In an interview with the Financial Times, Cardinal Pell said: “The Church has no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters. We believe in the autonomy of science.”

To which the only possible response is “Yes and no, Your Eminence – but much more no than yes.” Scientists may be sure that the anopheles mosquito carries malaria, and everywhere the Catholic Church accepts their verdict and supports local campaigns to wipe it out. Not to do so would be irresponsible, yet the Church does not claim expertise in epidemiology or entomology. There is a small chance that the experts are wrong, but it is not a chance worth taking.

This “precautionary principle”, which applies in both cases, is a moral judgement the Catholic Church is fully competent to make. The fact is that Cardinal Pell, no scientist himself, has repeatedly stated that he does not believe in climate change, or that it is caused by humans, or if it is, that it is necessarily harmful. The line that “the Pope has no competence in scientific matters”, sometimes coloured with a reference to Galileo, has become the standard bolt-hole of conservative Catholics in the United States, many of whom also oppose efforts by the Obama administration to take climate change seriously.

The negative response to Laudato si’ is often linked to the other anti-Francis tack taken by right-wing American Catholics – that his fierce critique of the free-market economic system only applies to Latin America, or indeed just Argentina, and hence says nothing about what happens elsewhere including the United States. This is to treat Pope Francis as a fool. They forget that he is not the first Pope to sound left-wing to their ears. Even the one that conservative Catholics in America tend most to admire, St John Paul II, had his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis rubbished in The Wall Street Journal as “warmed-over Marxism”. To their credit the American bishops, by and large, have not fallen into the trap of siding with these ideological critics of the papacy.

The link between these responses to Francis’ approach on what he terms “our common home” and the market is revealed by the test “cui bono?” Who benefits from trying to discredit the Pope in these ways? In both cases, the interests served are those of American big business: Wall Street financial capitalism, for instance, and the industrial complex dependent on fossil fuels – car manufacturers, oil companies and coal-based electrical generation. Pope Francis has made some big enemies. But he should not be daunted.

What do you think?


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User Comments (6)

Comment by: I'm not a robot
Posted: 27/07/2015 16:02:54

The Pope must also resist left-wing brainwashing.

Comment by: Sarah T M Bell
Posted: 25/07/2015 21:23:21

So then we must all keep our prayers going up for Pope Francis and put everything in God's hands. Fortunately for us God always knows what to do, he loves us and he will get it right. In the meantime, whichever group is correct in its analysis of climate change, let us hedge our own bets and at least make an effort to avoid our hitherto wasteful way of using the fruits of the earth.

Comment by: Billy
Posted: 24/07/2015 19:44:18

There's nothing scorned like an American Republican's scorn. Climate change is for real. Human contribution can't be denied. Even by Cardinal Pell. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

Comment by: frankregan
Posted: 24/07/2015 16:22:46

Even before SRS and PP, the conservative National Review edited by Catholic William Buckley, reacted to John XXIII's Mater et Magistra thus: Mater, si; Magistra, no.

Comment by: philip
Posted: 24/07/2015 12:21:40

what a pity that the article could not actually address the arguments made by the US (and other) critics rather than simply discredit them by associating them with business interests. The most eloquent critiques come from those who have no relationship with such interests whatsoever. Why not play the ball rather than the man? These are serious issues that affect the lives of the world's poorest people - they should be taken seriously.

Comment by: Fr Ashley Beck
Posted: 23/07/2015 19:59:38

Very good piece - but there is an error you may want to correct..It was Blessed Paul VI's encyclical Populorum Progressio which the Wall Street journal dubbed 'souped up Marxism' in 1967, not SRS (written to commemorate it), although I dare say they took the same view of it

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