A senior figure in the Vatican has questioned the Pope’s authority to pronounce on climate change. Cardinal George Pell, who was appointed by Pope Francis last year to manage the Vatican finances, said the Roman Catholic church had ‘no mandate’ to lay down doctrine on scientific matters.
His remarks indicated concern among some high-ranking Catholics at the direction and tone of Francis’ encyclical on climate change last month.
In the encyclical, which carries the full authority of church teaching, the Pope said that the world risked becoming ‘an immense pile of filth’ and that ‘doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.’
‘But the church has no particular expertise in science. The church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters. We believe in the autonomy of science,’ he added.
The Cardinal said in the interview with the Financial Times that the encyclical, called ‘Laudato Si’, was ‘very well received’ and the Pope had ‘beautifully set out our obligations to future generations and our obligations to the environment.’
The Cardinal is the most senior Roman Catholic yet to sound a note of caution over the encyclical, which argues that the world must take precautions against climate change at the summit to be held in Paris in December. It said that climate change is doing most harm to the world’s poor.
Cardinal Pell, who took over the management of Vatican spending last February with a brief to tighten financial controls, has provoked anger among green campaigners in the past.
In 2006 he declared that ‘hysteric and extreme claims about global warming are also a symptom of pagan emptiness’ and a year later wrote that he was ‘sceptical about extravagant claims of impending man-made climatic catastrophes.’
His criticism of the Pope’s encyclical was carefully phrased – the Pope said in his own paper that ‘The church does not presume to settle scientific questions’ – but it reflects signs of dissent among other prominent Catholics.
A senior British Catholic layman, Labour peer Lord Donoughue, last week criticised Francis’ faith in renewable energy, saying that ‘wood and dung fires may be renewable energy sources but their disastrous impact on human health is undeniable.
‘We would have liked to have seen the encyclical address moral dilemmas like this head on. We would also have liked to have known Pope Francis’s view on the bans on development aid for fossil fuel plants that so many western governments have put in place.’
In the same paper published by the sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation, the Church of England Bishop of Chester, the Right Reverend Peter Forster, said: ‘Pope Francis should certainly be commended for his desire to deal with poverty in the developing world, but it is hard to see how he hopes to do so without economic growth and fossil fuels, both of which he thinks are unnecessary evils.’
The Bishop of Chester did not speak in the Church of England General Synod’s debate on climate change last week, during which at the prompting of the Archbishop of Canterbury it adopted a string of green policies, including a promise to teach ‘ecotheology’ and ‘eco-justice’ to its trainee priests, and a request to the faithful to fast in protest on the first day of every month.
There have been concerns in the CofE that many churchgoers have failed to be impressed by their leaders’ anxiety over climate change.
The CofE’s environmental adviser David Shreeve wrote earlier this month that the church had not been ‘successful in dragging environmental concern into its mainstream’.
He added: ‘The majority of those who do link their faith with environmental concern are still on the edges – members of special environmental groups rather than in the main body of the church.