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What is the Holy See’s Current Position on Global Warming?

April 27, 2007

What eventually follows is the Holy See’s on-the-record position on global warming. But first, a preface…

This post is inspired by Thomas N. Peters, the self-described “American Papist.” Yesterday evening, Thomas wrote the following words in reaction to a message given by Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace’s Climate Change and Development Study Seminar, which is currently in session: “Of course, I’d like to see [Pope Benedict XVI’s] full message so I can see whether the Pope actually came out and said anything about ‘manmade global warming.’ My understanding is that to this point he has not.” I assume that by “manmade global warming” Thomas means to signify the hypothesis that human production and development contributes to or accelerates the natural phenomenon of climate change (after all, I don’t think global warming can be manufactured). In a post last month, Thomas made the unusual assertion: “I post this because global warming is in many ways steadily becoming the new ‘secular religion’. For that reason, it’s important to be informed.” I agree with Thomas: it’s important to be informed. But unfortunately Thomas neglected to inform of us as to how a hypothesis about a phenomenon in nature (global warming) which is either truth or false could be a secular religion. Is he suggesting that accepting the validity of the hypothesis is akin to accepting a false religion? Is he speaking in mere hyperbole? In either case, he seems to be suggesting that to accept the validity of the hypothesis of global warming is to purchase “myths” or “religion.” Notice the utter lack of restraint in what he implies: there is no truth to claims, scientific or otherwise, that climate is affected in any way (in whatever measure or whichever manner) by humans.

But Thomas is not the only Catholic blogger who seems to be in the business of “debunk[ing] the myths surrounding the claims about global warming caused by humans.” Thomas draws from the handywork of Jimmy Akin, who posted a video on his blog that was described by Akin as “devastating”. Devastating to whom? Devastating to what? Jimmy doesn’t tell us, but he does provide a link to a summary of the video written by economist Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution. If the object of devastation of which Jimmy speaks is the same object of devastation of which Sowell speaks, then we have an answer. The video is devastating because it is “showing what a crock the current global warming hysteria is.” I assume from the link to Sowell’s summary that Jimmy endorses Sowell’s view. So it seems we can guess with relative adequacy where Jimmy and Thomas stand on the issue of global warming.

But now I start to wonder. Did Thomas or Jimmy take the time to look past political ideology and consider the issue of global warming from a strictly scientific or ethical view? Did they look at what the Holy See has stated on the issue in recent years? Did they take the time to consider whether or not they might scandalize not a few Catholics by undermining the messages of Holy See on their Catholic blogs? Do either Thomas or Jimmy look at the environment without partisan-tinted lenses? After all, every post they have on global warming takes a jab in one or another at those who accept the probability that humans contribute to an acceleration of climate change.

Perhaps I am naive, but I do not think the Holy See has much to gain by taken sides in the political conflict over global warming. And what the Holy See has stated on global warming is worth a listen.

Pope John Paul II

On at least three occasions, John Paul II stated his opinion that global warming or climate change was affected by human activity. In fact, it appears that he took it for granted. Consider the following passage from his 2001 Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania:

The island nations of Polynesia and Micronesia are relatively small, each with its own indigenous language and culture. They too are facing the pressures and challenges of a contemporary world which exerts a powerful influence upon their society. Without losing their identity or abandoning their traditional values, they want to share in the development resulting from more direct and complex interaction with other peoples and cultures. That is proving to be a delicate balance in these small and vulnerable societies, some of which are facing a very uncertain future, not only because of large-scale emigration but also because of rising sea levels caused by global warming. For them, climate change is very much more than a question of economics. (no. 6)

In his Address on the promulgation of Ecclesia in Oceania, John Paul II explicitly ties global warming in with crises caused and affected by human activity:

But we recognized too that the many challenges facing the peoples of Oceania at this time are summoning the Church to engage the Pacific peoples and their cultures with renewed vigour and conviction. The Synod heard of economic crises, political instability, corruption, ethnic conflicts, the erosion of traditional forms of social organization, the breakdown of law and order, the threat of global warming and, especially in the wealthier societies, of a genuinely spiritual crisis of meaning which shows itself most clearly in the erosion of respect for human life. (no. 2)

In his Message for the World Day of Peace in 2005, John Paul II included climate change along with poverty, peace and disease control as issues that necessitate the responsible regulation of industry and production for the sake of the common good. Notice that the Pope considers these issues as within the scope of human action:

The good of peace will be better ensured if the international community takes on greater responsibility for what are commonly called public goods. These are goods which all citizens automatically enjoy, without having consciously chosen them or contributed to them in any way. Such is the case, for example, at the national level, with such goods as the judiciary system, the defence system and the network of highways and railways. In our world the phenomenon of increased globalization means that more and more public goods are taking on a global character, and as a result common interests are daily increasing. We need but think of the fight against poverty, the promotion of peace and security, concern for climate change and disease control. The international community needs to respond to these interests with a broader network of juridical accords aimed at regulating the use of public goods and inspired by universal principles of fairness and solidarity. (no. 7)

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Some Catholics have suggested that the idea of global warming is sheer ideological propaganda aimed at forwarding liberal agendas, boasting of little to no scientific backing. These same Catholics do not seem to question whether opponents of these so-called agendas might themselves be playing politics, protecting corporations from government regulation. Be that as it may, the Holy See’s arm in the sciences has indicated quite the opposite position.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences
, an independent entity within the Holy See, consists of 80 academicians from various countries who have made significant contributions to the scientific field. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is charged with providing the Holy See with information on current scientific issues ranging from physics to ecology.

In the past ten years, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has formed at least three working groups to address the issue of climate change or global warming. In 1998, the Academy convened the working group Geosphere-Biosphere Interactions and Climate and relayed the following:

The gathering also discussed an even more controversial and disturbing question. Several of those taking part in the meeting presented data and models which demonstrated that both the world’s climate and the earth’s life support system may be liable to abrupt and major changes during the course of the twenty-first century. The experts present were worried about this alarming possibility and were also concerned about our lack of understanding about what actually brings about drastic climatic change.

The scientists who presented research demonstrating (a scientific term for proof) the probable shifts in climate and life systems had their concerns published in the “Conclusions” of the 1998 working group’s report. In the Press Release for the 2004 workshop entitled “Interactions between Global Change and Human Health,” the Academy explicitly and directly stated that human activity has become a geochemical and geophysical force that is affecting global climate.

Global (Bio/geophysical) Change has in the public discussion been used almost synonymously with Climate Change. The issue is much broader, however. Over the past two centuries, the tremendous growth of the human population and the high resource demand of technologically developed societies have made humanity a geochemical and geophysical force, able to compete with Nature’s forces and to threaten the functioning of the Earth System. Human activities are changing the composition of the biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere, are affecting global climate, and may even perturb the main circulation patterns of the Ocean. Because of the numerous feedbacks and teleconnections in the Earth System, the changes resulting from such perturbations are likely to be non-linear and may contain abrupt discontinuities. Examples are sudden changes in atmospheric composition (e.g., the Ozone Hole), the collapse of the Amazon forest, or the breakdown of the Gulf-Stream circulation in the North Atlantic.

At present, we are already witnessing one way in which human health issues affect climate change: The concern about the health effects of pollution aerosols from power plants etc. is leading to much more efforts to control emissions than had been anticipated. Since these aerosols would have a cooling effect on climate, such emission reductions may lead to accelerated climate warming over the next century.

While the interactions between infectious disease and climate change will be the focus of this workshop, we should not fail to mention that climate change, and especially the extreme climate events associated with it, are already taking a toll in human lives, as exemplified in the substantial number of excess deaths associated with the extreme heat period in Europe during the summer of 2003.

More recently, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a working group on Water and the Environment in which “Climate Change” was one of 5 main topics, though over a quarter of the scientific reports presented directly addressed the issue.

The Pontifical Academy of Science seems to be fairly clear. It has explicitly and directly tied human activity to climate change in a number of its official reports over the past decade, not one of which has been politically charged.

Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observor to the U.N.

On May 11, 2006, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Apostolic Nuncio and current Permanent Observor of the Holy See to the U.N., delivered a poignant statement on the occasion of the U.N. Economic and Social Council’s 14th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in the name of Pope Benedict XVI. Migliore noted:

There is also an urgent need to transform global energy systems, as current approaches are causing serious harm to human health, the Earth’s climate and ecological systems on which all life depends, and because access to clean, reliable energy services is a vital prerequisite for alleviating poverty.

The Earth’s climate system has demonstrably changed on both global and regional scales since the pre-industrial era. Agenda 21 recognizes the legitimate priority needs of developing countries for the achievement of sustained economic growth and the eradication of poverty, but this clearly cannot be achieved at any price. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to be stabilized at present levels – an unlikely eventuality as things stand – the global warming trend and sea-level rise would continue for hundreds of years, due to the atmospheric lifetime of some greenhouse gases and the long timescales on which the deep ocean adjusts to climate change. (pp. 2-3)

On December 10, 2003 at the Ninth Conference of the Parties (COP-9) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), then undersecretary of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace and member of the Holy See Delegation Msgr. Frank J. Dewane, representing the Holy See, declared:

Both scientifically and politically, it has been recognized that human activity is a significant factor in climate change. Further, human actions can play a crucial role in the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. The consequent ethical responsibilities are not limited only, however, to single acts of individuals, but apply equally at the level of technical, economic and social structures and at the government level. There is, therefore, an ethical obligation incumbent on all individuals and societies, particularly certain sectors of society, to assure that all activity is oriented towards the common good, with special care and consideration for the poor.

Pope Paul VI and Pope Benedict XVI on Moral Questions of Ecology

Both John Paul II’s predecessor and successor have stressed the ethical dimension of ecology, extending the moral implications of imago Dei to the care for, and conservation of the environment. This moral mandate provides the backdrop to the Holy See’s concerns over human activity’s link to global warming.

Let us just emphasize, in the more general field of scientific research, two attitudes which, it seems to us, should characterize the scientist, and especially the scientist who is a Christian. On the one hand, he must honestly consider the question of the earthly future of mankind and, as a responsible person, help to prepare it, preserve it, and eliminate risks; we think that this solidarity with future generations is a form of charity to which a great many men are sensitive today, in the framework of ecology.
Pope Paul VI, Address of 19 April 1975 to the participants of the study week on “Biological and Artificial Membranes and Desalination of Water”

“In dialogue with Christians of various churches, we need to commit ourselves to caring for the created world, without squandering its resources, and sharing them in a cooperative way.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Address of April 27, 2006

“In the face of the great threats to the natural environment, we want to express our concern at the negative consequences for humanity and for the whole of creation which can result from economic and technological progress that does not know its limits. As religious leaders, we consider it one of our duties to encourage and to support all efforts made to protect God’s creation.”
Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew I, Common Declaration of November 30, 2007

So What’s the Verdict?

As I mentioned above, the Holy See’s chief council for dealing with moral and practical issues of justice and peace is currently wrapping up a two-day closed conference where 80 experts from 20 different countries are in conversation on the scientific, political and ethical issues surrounding climate change and global warming. You can read early news reports on the conference at Zenit and Reuters.

Thomas N. Peters wants to know if Pope Benedict XVI believes there is a link between human activity and climate change. Given the fact that, for the past ten years, the Holy See has explicitly and continually reaffirmed that it not only believes there is a link but also seems to take for granted, based on scientific research, that there is, indeed, a link. Pope John Paul II, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Holy See’s delegations to the U.N. and the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace have all unequivocally spoken of this link, and even speak of a moral duty for the world, and especially for Christians, to work to curb and eliminate all treats to the geosphere and biosphere. And given Pope Benedict XVI’s frequent admonitions to protect the environment, I see absolutely no grounds whatsoever to imagine that he has or would break with the Holy See’s view on global warming.

The problem Jimmy Akin and Thomas Peters now face is their hastily posted comments on global warming. Both of these bloggers have either implicitly or explicity undermined the efforts of Pope John Paul II and the Holy See to educate and inform Catholics over humans affecting the climate. Would Akin extend his comments into suggesting that his ideologically laden video is devasting to the Holy See’s consistant and continual position? Would Peters assert that the Holy See (and his beloved John Paul II) have embraced a “secular religion”? Or should we give Akin and Peters the benefit of the doubt and just assume that they are both ignorant of what the Catholic Church has stated on the issue from the full-gamut of the levels of authority? Whatever the case, neither blogger is onboard with the Holy See or with any viable Catholic view on this issue. This would not be the first time that Akin or Peters has either distorted or misrepresented the Holy See on a theological, moral or pastoral issue, and I advise the readers of their blogs to exercise caution when reading their blogs. It is far more charitable to make public correction to these public distortions and misrepresentation than to either ignore them or resort to private correspondence. Private correspondence is necessary for correcting sin; public admonitions are appropriate for matters of faith, doctrine and pastoral concern.

When we stop thinking American politics and we start thinking in a Catholic fashion, we remove–however momentarily–those ideological lenses that blur, blind and bind. Environmental concern is not a political platform when it comes to Catholicism. Rather, environmental concern is a moral mandate issued from the Creator of the environment Himself in whose image we are created.


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