When It’s OK to Ignore the Pope

Now that Pope Francis has officially affirmed a “very solid scientific consensus” that the earth is warming as a result of human activity and offered a point-by-point critique of an unsustainable, consumption-based economic system that is creating a planet of “debris, desolation and filth” it’ll be interesting to see how the Catholic GOP presidential candidates react to what is basically a searing indictment of their entire worldview. (Dibs on the campaign slogan “Debris, Desolation & Filth: Vote Republican.”)

If early reactions are any guide, the candidates are going with some version of “the pope is a great guy, but when it comes to science and economics, he’s way out of his wheelhouse.” We got a preview of this from Rick Santorum in early June, when he said in a radio interview: “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. We probably are better off leaving science to the scientists, and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”

Conservative Catholic thinkers have been working to create a rationale for the Republican rejection of the climate encyclical by suggesting that there’s some kind of dichotomy between church teachings that involve issues of “morality” (i.e., sex and the sanctity of life), which are properly under the pope’s purview, and those related to empirical issues (like climate change), which are not.

In a widely circulated First Things article, Princeton natural law scholar Robert George wrote back in January, “The Pope has the right and responsibility to teach and even bind the consciences of the faithful on the truth of proposed moral norms, including those norms pertaining to our obligations concerning the natural environment.” However, he said:

The Pope has no special knowledge, insight, or teaching authority pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists, nor do popes claim such knowledge, insight, or wisdom. Pope Francis does not know whether, or to what extent, the climate changes (in various directions) of the past several decades are anthropogenic—and God is not going to tell him. Nor does he know what their long term effects will be. If anything he teaches depends on views about these things, all he will have to go on is what everybody else has to go on, namely, the analyses offered by scientific specialists who have studied the matter.

As a result, he said, “faithful Catholics are not bound by positions adopted by the Pope on such matters.”

But clearly Pope Francis is arguing that addressing anthropogenic climate change is a Catholic moral obligation no matter the source of the information. He notes the long history of popes addressing the morality of the human role in ecological destruction and offering specific solutions related to consumption and the economy. His predecessor Pope Benedict proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.”

And conservatives have tried to draft science to buttress their causes when it suits their needs, most notably when they insist that there is a “scientific consensus” that life begins at conception. Of course, they have also long insisted that it is anathema for Catholics to ignore papal teachings with which they disagree, but now seem willing to change their mind.

But Laudato si, or “Praise be to you,” is likely to be the conservative Catholic’s Humanae Vitae—the encyclical that presents such a stark contrast between papal teaching and a preferred worldview that one must reject it. After all, how likely are today’s Tea Partyish, libertarian-leaning Republican Catholics to accept a teaching that asserts the need for a radical reordering of the existing economic order to protect the planet, calls for the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy, decries business models centered on “maximizing profits,” and discredits the free market as a solution to the world’s problems?

For Catholic Republican presidential candidates, the trick will be to maintain a suitably respectful tone for the pope himself while distancing themselves from his prescriptions for the planet. As Daniel Schultz notes, Jeb Bush said the following at a campaign event on Tuesday:

… I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.

So all of a sudden Republicans want to keep religion out of the “political realm” and make it personal? This is the same man who as governor intervened in the personal moral decision of Terri Schiavo’s husband and used the power of the state to keep her alive based on Bush’s own religious convictions.

This is the same party that for going on 50 years has asserted the right of religious conservatives to impose their morality on abortion, marriage and a host of other issues on all Americans through the political process. At least it’s nice to finally see them admit that at the end of the day, they’re as in favor of moral relativism as liberals—when it suits their needs.