Guest essay by Joe Ronan
Today we see another set of meetings in Rome. One is that of the Pontifical Academy of Science, and the other the Heartland Institute. Both organisations are hoping to influence the widely heralded Encyclical from Pope Francis that will include references to climate change. Given that the text of the Encyclical has already been finalised, and is currently being translated, there may not be much that either party can do to affect it’s content. The headlines they are making will be building up expectations on both sides, and it’s worth having a closer look at the background to an encyclical.
What is an Encyclical?
Simply put, it is a circular letter written by the Pope to the Church which forms a part of the Ordinary Magisterium or teaching of the Church. It is not a formal statement of the type that is regarded as infallible doctrine, as it usually deals with moral guidance and the application of existing doctrine to current matters. In the past encyclicals have dealt with such subjects as war and social issues of all types.
What will this one cover?
Despite the emphasis being put on climate change in the press, it’s unlikely that the central part of the document will concern itself with just that subject. Rather it will treat that as one factor among many in what Pope Benedict XVI called ‘human ecology’, a term that Pope Francis has adopted enthusiastically. It will touch on many aspects of life for the poor and vulnerable, including the misuse of economic power and the many injustices that man visits upon man in our world.
Is the Pope endorsing a particular view of climate change?
In the coming encyclical, the indications are that it will certainly include some discussion on how to react to the planet’s continually changing climate. On this issue, (as a non-scientist with some technical training) he will be largely dependent on the advice of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences which has made a number of statements on this topic.
The PAS is in turn dependent on interpreting the IPCC 5th Assessment Report (AR5) which was completed in 2014 and is a wide ranging review of the known science and data on the subject.
So the starting point will be a largely accepted position that the climate has warmed and that at least half of this change is very likely due to man’s actions. *
Is the Church making pronouncements on Science?
The Church is accepting the judgements of it’s scientific advisers. There is of course precedent for the scientific consensus to be wrong, and the Pope seems to be well aware of this as he mentioned in a press conference on his flight back from the visit to Korea in August 2014;
“But now there is a rather difficult problem, because, up to a certain point, one can speak with some assurance about safeguarding creation and ecology, including human ecology. But there are also scientific hypotheses [to be taken into account], some of them quite solid, others not. In this kind of encyclical, which has to be magisterial, one can only build on solid data, on things that are reliable. If the Pope says that the earth is the centre of the universe, and not the sun, he errs, since he is affirming something that ought to be supported by science, and this will not do. That’s where we are at now. We have to study the document, number by number, and I believe it will become smaller. But to get to the heart of the matter and to what can be safely stated. You can say in a footnote: “On this or that question there are the following hypotheses…”, as a way of offering information, but you cannot do that in the body of encyclical, which is doctrinal and has to be sound.
So there is clear recognition here that anything that depends upon hypothesis is unlikely to make it into the main body of the document.
If so, do Catholics have to believe everything he says?
The encyclical will have the status of the ordinary teaching authority of the magisterium, so is not lightly put aside. This works both ways of course; one of the reasons that Pope Francis makes the comment quoted above is that he is conscious that what is written needs to be correct, and will have gone to some trouble to identify those issues which are subject to change and interpretation.
A great problem is that many people form an opinion on a document or an issue based on press reports, or other third party interpretations. These can be very selective in nature, and often ‘spin’ the substance of the document in very creative ways. There is no substitute for reading a document in it’s entirety and understanding the full case that it puts. A Catholic has a duty to fully inform his or her conscience about what the Church teaches, and then (and only then) act according to their conscience or ‘moral compass’. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (892) and Lumen Gentium (para 25) make it clear that the full documents have to be considered in their context and character and reference that to other speeches and writings in order to fully inform themselves. A good example is that of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that dealt with contraception. There are many people who say they disagree with it; considerably fewer who have actually read it!
Is this science, religion or politics? Is the Pope calling for specific policies or changes in behaviour from Catholics?
The Pope has made it clear that one of his great concerns is the welfare of all humanity, and particularly the poor and vulnerable. The encyclical will no doubt deal with many aspects of human behaviour with respect to dealings with our neighbours and with the environment and so will impact on all areas of our thinking and behaviour, including in the areas of science, politics and religion. This teaching will likely give particular moral guidance, but will not deal with the specifics of policy or attempt to ‘take a side’ with respect to political systems. It will require a Catholic to consider the teaching, and to apply that in an informed way to their decisions and actions in their everyday life, including in the political sphere.
Is this going to cause controversy and division in the Church?
It is certain that in the days after publication there will be many words spoken and written across a wide range of commentators that will highlight particular lines, phrases, or even short sets of words, that will be set up to indicate that the Pope and the Church advocate this or that policy, or political system, or stance on other matters. This will in turn lead to counter pieces, refutations, re-analysis and re-interpretation ad infinitum particularly since many groups have specifically stated that they are looking for the Holy Father to produce a document that will strengthen their particular world view.
This is all good. The whole point of an encyclical to engage in teaching and to spark debate; to encourage thinking deeply into an issue and to question ourselves and our own actions. It is very easy to look at such a document in terms of how it supports a particular political viewpoint. But Popes generally, and Pope Francis in particular have a habit of ploughing their own furrow, and not being aligned with a particular way of doing things. Rather they look to inform each of us individually as to how to live our lives, and govern our own actions in the light of Church teaching. We, each of us individually, are asked to read and understand the teachings as they apply to us, not as we think they apply to others.
Personally, I expect that what is written will be fully in accord with, for instance, the concerns highlighted here recently on the way poverty stricken people are denied access to life saving energy sources.
One thing is certain, the coming encyclical will contain a lot of surprises to people at all points on the political spectrum. And it will challenge us all to look again at how, in a practical way, we love our neighbour.
*Summary for Policymakers (IPCC-AR4, vol 1, page 10): “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”
Joe Ronan is a Catholic with a science background in analytical chemistry. He resides in the UK.