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Climate And Church: It’s Back To Before Galileo

Riccardo Cascioli

It took 350 years and John Paul II to close the ‘Galileo case’, clarifying that the Bible should not be interpreted as if it were a scientific manual. And here we are putting the doctrine of Creation and climate policies back together, as if one descended from the other.

” How can we enjoy “sustainable development” on a very crowded planet? […] Two centuries ago, the British thinker Thomas Robert Malthus famously warned that excessive population growth would cut short economic progress. That is a threat still with us today…”

This is what Jeffrey Sachs said on CNN October 21, 2011, the “prophet” of sustainable development and important protagonist at the Vatican conference dedicated to sustainable development and climate change. Not only was he the main speaker but the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Peter Turkson,  quoted his theories as an example: “We are in the era of sustainable development and we have to make the right moral choices,” said Turkson inviting everyone to read Sach’s new book which was distributed for the occasion.

The person to whom Catholic thinking on the theme of economy and environment has been trusted, is a neo-Malthusian incapable of recognising that history has amply refuted Malthus. And it isn’t that the ideas of Sachs, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for the MDGs, are secret either. Birth control has always been one of the pillars of his theories. If you just think about an article published in 2004 when he rebuked Western countries who were concerned about falling birth rates in their countries. Fools, Sachs said, you do not realisehow lucky you are, there will be “great benefits in societies with stable or gradually declining populations:” more wealth and less pressure on the environment. In fact, we have seen what has happened in the past ten years. This is also what is referred to, when it comes to talking about the non-Catholic thought that has crept into the Church.

Yet it is these kind of “prophets” that the Church seems to want to rely on today for the elaboration of the Social Doctrine of the Church, abandoning that realistic vision and wisdom, that ability to see beyond the fads because anchored to eternal values, that has characterised it so far.

From this point of view also Cardinal Turkson’s intervention yesterday contains at least two critical aspects, as well as paying homage to Jeffrey Sachs, who not without reason is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

The first problem is the evident confusion between scientific theory and moral action. The president of Justice and Peace has taken for granted the idea that​​ Global Warming is anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused), which is not at all a closed question from a scientific perspective, by elevating it to the truths of faith, that requires an immediate moral action. He has mixed pseudo scientific cliches (the cause-effect relationship between fossil fuels and climate change) with religious principles, taking the Church back 400 years (of course the responsibility is not only his, it is a worrying trend at the top of Church).

It took 350 years and John Paul II to close the “Galileo case” clarifying that the Bible should not be interpreted as if it were a scientific manual. And here we are putting the doctrine of Creation and climate policies back together, as if one descended from the other. You can understand why many expect the next encyclical of Pope Francis to provide the impulse needed to fight against climate change, and yesterday even Greenpeace published an open letter thanking Pope Francis for his “green” initiatives.

Yet it was precisely Pope Francis who took a distance from such positions that confuse doctrine and scientific problems. While flying from Korea to the Philippines during his recent trip to Asia, in response to a German journalist who asked him about the encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis made it clear:

“This is a difficult problem, because on the custody of creation, ecology, also on human ecology, we can only speak with some confidence to a certain point. Then, there are scientific hypotheses, some are quite certain, others are not. Therefore an encyclical, which must be magisterial, must move forward only on what is certain, on the things that are certain. If the Pope says that the center of the universe is the Earth and not the Sun, it is wrong, because he says something that must be scientific, and that will not do. This is the case now. We must now do the study, number by number, and I think it will become smaller. We must go to the essential, and say what we can with confidence. It can be said in the notes, footnotes, this is the hypothesis in this case, on this and this …, say it as information, but not in the body of an encyclical, which is doctrinal and should be certain.”

The second question concerns the role of the Church and of Catholics in environmental problems, which are not lacking. The original point of Catholicism is to recognise that just because there is Creation there is a natural order established by the Creator, who placed man at the summit of Creation, the only living creature made in the image and likeness of God. The Benedictine experience demonstrates that those who live “seeking God” make God’s creation even more beautiful as well as life more human; on the contrary environmental disorder arises from breaking the link with God and generates wild exploitation on the one hand and deification of nature on the other. That’s why the primary contribution that the Church can make to the question of the environment is evangelisation and this is also the deeper meaning of ” human ecology.”

But it is an awareness that seems to have been blurred, diluted in an ecological ecumenism which appears as the “ethical arm” of a global power: all religions together to give moral consistency to the commitment that the UN agencies are requesting for the planet’s health . In response to prolonged drought or sudden floods, it is no longer processions, prayers, masses; no, now the order is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Today “the total conversion of hearts and minds” means for the religious leaders to be “models”of sustainability, said Cardinal Turcson: “We lead by example! Think about what a positive message it would be if people of faith were not only to preach sustainability but live sustainable lives! For example, think about what a positive message it would be if churches, mosques, synagogues and temples around the world were to achieve “zero emissions”.”

These are not just theeccentric ideas of a single cardinal, it is a prevalent tendency in the Church: the same approach is found in “ecological conversion” decided by the order of the Jesuits; in dioceses and parishes which install solar panels on churches,proclaiming it is a “prophetic gesture;” in the handoutson practices for Lenten penitence, where the collection of differentiated waste is indicated; in contests for a “sustainable church.”

In short, the real change of climate that we should worry about is the one in the Church.

Translation by Patricia Gooding-Williams