Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Politician vs. The Pope
distributed 6/5/15 - ©2015

Politicians make stupid, offensive comments all the time. But one of this week's prime examples concerns the role of churches on matters of eco-justice, so it grabbed my attention. What's more, the politician may have given voice to an opinion shared by lots of church people -- clergy and lay, alike -- so this one just screams for an informed (and contrary) commentary.

The culprit of the week is former US Senator Rick Santorum, a "devout Catholic" who is one of the Republicans running for President this year. In the course of a radio interview last Monday, a question was raised about the soon-to-be-released papal encyclical on the environment and climate change. Mr. Santorum was not pleased. Even though he's a "huge fan" of Pope Francis because of church teachings on the nuclear family, he thinks the Pope is making a mistake by getting into climate issues. The oft-quoted comments:

The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists. I think when we get involved with controversial political and scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible. And I've said this to the bishops many times when they get involved in agriculture policy or things like that, that are really outside the scope of what the church's main message is.

OK - to start with that "leaving science to the scientists" part. The Catholic church is trusting the scientists on their analysis of climate disruptions and ecological crisis. The expectation about the encyclical is that it will rely on the strong and clear agreement among the world's climate scientists that human impacts are driving global warming, and that urgent action is needed to minimize the damage.

I can also note that there is an institution known as The Pontifical Academy of Sciences with a history dating back to 1603. It is "the first exclusively scientific academy in the world." The Academy, as an independent entity within the Vatican, "constitutes an invaluable source of objective information upon which the Holy See and its various bodies can draw." Through the Academy, the Pope does a very good job of "leaving science to the scientists", and then drawing on their knowledge.

Then there is the amusing fact that -- as Forbes reported two years ago when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was just elected as Pope -- "Pope Francis, isn't just a cleric. He's also a scientist" with extensive training in chemistry. This pope actually has some good academic and experiential grounding to evaluate the work of climate scientists.

Mr. Santorum seems to be wrong on every aspect of the science part. Which brings us to the question of whether "controversial political and scientific theories" have anything to do with "the church's main message". In the interview, Santorum said the church should focus on "what we're really good at, which is theology and morality." (One might think that an encyclical from the Pope would involve those two themes?) Indeed, Charles Reid Jr., an expert on Catholicism and canon law, said to a Salon reporter, "the pope is focusing on morals, but not the morals that Rick Santorum wants."

Mr. Santorum thinks that the Pope is on solid ground with moral matters of sexuality and family life. But, for him, climate change and agriculture policy are "outside the scope" of the church's message.

I'm not a Catholic, but I am familiar with a huge and influential body of thought that is known as Catholic Social Teaching. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops affirms that "Catholic social teaching is a central and essential element of our faith. Catholic social teaching is built on a commitment to the poor. This commitment arises from our experiences of Christ in the eucharist." Connecting social teaching to the eucharist ties it pretty securely to the church's main message. But maybe those essential teachings don't deal with things like climate and agriculture?

The US Bishops describe seven themes that have been "articulated through a tradition of papal, conciliar, and episcopal documents" such as encyclicals. Those themes include the ones that are close to Mr. Santorum's heart (such as "call to family, community and participation" and "life and dignity of the human person"). But the principles also deal with questions that are not on his list of favorites: "the dignity of work and the rights of workers", "option for the poor and vulnerable" and "care for God's creation". (On creation, they write, "Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored.")

So, if social and environmental teachings are within the scope of the church, Santorum's problem must be that climate change is controversial. Maybe the church should never speak up on controversial topics?

The Catholic Exchange website lists 7 Papal Encyclicals That Changed the World. (I hope the upcoming environmental one will soon be #8 on the list.) They explain that "encyclicals wield an outsize influence. Papal encyclicals have inspired revolutions, changed cultures, and helped topple ideologies and empires. Sometimes they meet with universal acclaim. Some arouse widespread disdain and dissent. Either way, when a pope issues his thoughts on an important matter of faith and morals, the world listens -- even if it doesn't always agree."

One of those Popes -- Pius XII, who held the office 1939-1958 -- noted that when Popes, in an encyclical, "express an opinion on a hitherto controversial matter, it is clear to all that this matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a question of free discussion among theologians."

Mr. Santorum has it wrong on every level. The Catholic Church is well-versed in modern science. The church has long recognized that economic systems and public policy are essential matters of theology and morality. And the church knows that it must, at times, take stands on controversial ideas.

And it isn't just the Roman Catholic Church that recognizes the need for sometimes controversial stands on faith and ethics. As one example, the United Methodist Church publishes a volume of its Social Principles. The description for the current volume says, "The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church are the product of ninety-eight years of legislative decisions made by lay and clergy members of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations. The Social Principles are prayerful and thoughtful efforts on the part of many General Conferences to speak to complex and controversial issues in the global community."

I thank God for the thoughtful and bold witness of churches -- across the theological spectrum -- who recognize that Christian witness must deal with the world's most challenging and controversial topics.

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I said earlier that Mr. Santorum may have given voice to an opinion shared by lots of church people. In congregations, clergy and laity are inclined to avoid controversial topics. In many settings, there's probably a strong sense that getting into messy questions about science or economics or public policy is not part of the role of churches.

I think of the explicit message that was given to my wife and me when we began our ministry in a pair of rural Iowa churches in the 1970s -- "We don't want our ministers telling us how to farm." The parallel can be found in all sorts of congregations where members don't want their church speaking up on things that would conflict with economic or business interests, or challenge community standards.

Mr. Santorum provides dangerous leadership with his statements about the timid, limited role that he sees for the church. He makes it easy for folk to expect their church to shut up about important issues.

Clearly, pastors and denominations have done social witness badly at times. (Mea culpa!) But I will lift up the forthcoming encyclical from Pope Francis as a fine example of how Christian churches can do their witness well on controversial topics.

You're absolutely wrong, Mr. Santorum. The environmental encyclical will represent the church going about its mission in excellent form. May we all ground ourselves so well in theology and church teaching; may we all respect the work of reputable science and research; and may we all recognize appropriate times and means to express our firm convictions.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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