Conservative corners have tepid take on Pope Francis' environment encyclical

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.
Residents carry plastics for recycling at the garbage dumpsite of Payatas Jan. 13 in Quezon City, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Residents carry plastics for recycling at the garbage dumpsite of Payatas Jan. 13 in Quezon City, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Editor's note: Anticipating the June 18 release of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, we are revisiting some of our earlier reporting and analysis of the themes and issues the encyclical is expected to address. Read all of our coverage here.

The release of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment later this summer will come as one of the more anticipated papal documents in recent decades. Since its origins as a late 2013 rumor, its hype has snowballed at a time when international attention to climate change has approached a zenith, and as world leaders converge in Paris this December for a possible binding climate agreement.

While the teaching document has fanned optimistic flames for environmentalists in and outside the church, it hasn't raised temperatures evenly for all. Some conservative corners have a more tepid take, welcoming papal guidance on environmental issues, while voicing concerns about the document's ultimate direction: toward a reaffirmation of the stewardship role over creation, or into the boiler of the contentious climate debate still firing in the U.S.

The unease pronounced itself in January. In the span of six days, at least 10 articles posted online from prominent conservative Catholic voices sought to temper, clarify or excoriate expectations for the eco-encyclical. One was Robert Royal, founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Faith & Reason Institute.

Upon reviewing excerpts of an early draft of the encyclical, he wanted to alert others of both the good and worrisome aspects he saw within it.

"There's no doubt in my mind or anybody else's mind that there are very serious environmental questions that the human race needs to address. There's also the question of poverty that [Francis] speaks about so eloquently, but to put these things together in a way that makes sense and brings luster to the church's social thought, it needs more than I've seen so far," he told NCR.

Royal has also seen much of what his peers preemptively have had to say about the document.

On Jan. 5, Rachel Lu wrote in Crisis magazine, "As a political conservative, I care somewhat about political issues such as this. But as a Catholic (which is much more important), I mainly care about fundamental Church teachings on faith and morals. Climate change is only very distantly relevant to any of these, so nothing the Holy Father says about it is likely to muddy doctrinal waters to any great extent. The deposit of faith is safe."

Dennis Prager stated Jan. 6 at that Francis' previous remarks on the environment have included "left-wing, even radical left-wing, language" -- more Marx than Moses. He also questioned how the pope could focus on the climate at a time when Christians face persecution in Africa and the Middle East.

At First Things on Jan. 5, Maureen Mullarkey accused Francis of "abandoning nuance for apocalyptic alarmism" when he said, "If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us." She labeled him "an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist" driven into geopolitical and meteorological areas by megalomania.

"Francis serves an environmentalist mindset that, unlike the traditional ethos of conservation, views man as a parasite (Western man in Francis' marxisant variant) and understands wealth in pre-modern terms as a zero-sum game," she wrote.

First Things Editor R.R. Reno later publicly stated that Mullarkey's criticisms did not represent the position of the publication.

While Royal called such portrayals of the pope as left-wing "utterly silly," he acknowledged a "big concern" among conservatives he considers credible: that the church could "knock itself out of the serious conversation by looking like it's going too far left. ... There's a real contribution that Pope Francis and the church can make here if they don't identify themselves too much with only one part -- and you can't really tell from what we know so far -- but one part that seems to be relatively extreme in the environmental debates."

Dissent not new

Disagreement over encyclicals has been something of a church tradition over the centuries. According to Michael Schuck, a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago and author of the 1991 book That They Be One: The Social Teaching of the Papal Encyclicals, 1740-1989, rancor has greeted the texts as early as the 19th century, when popes responded to the Enlightenment and various revolutions in Europe.

"There's nothing new about dissent and debate about encyclicals," Schuck said. "That's been going on since about when they started," and the custom is not limited to either liberal or conservative camps, he said.

In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI's first encyclical, Mirari Vos, met pushback when he denounced religious pluralism and separation of church and state. More recently, Humanae Vitae (1968) drew rebukes on the issue of contraception, and Laborem Exercens (1981) raised anxiety for its perceived socialist overtones.

The environmental encyclical will be Francis' first such solo venture, after issuing in June 2013 Lumen Fidei, a text began by Pope Benedict XVI. While Benedict and Pope John Paul II both addressed environmental issues -- including concern for the state of the climate -- at various times, Francis' environmental encyclical will be the first from a pope devoted primarily to the topic.

An encyclical offers a medium for the pope to communicate with the worldwide church and represents an exercise of his ordinary, or non-infallible, magisterium, said Richard Gaillardetz, the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. In terms of authority, it is superseded only by an apostolic constitution.

Generally, he said, Catholics are expected to read an encyclical "out of a deep respect for the teaching authority of the pope." While a teaching based on scientific knowledge, whether climate change or birth control, is not divinely revealed, that doesn't mean it carries no doctrinal weight.

"Catholics would have to give the presumption of truth to such teaching and could dissent from that teaching only after careful consideration and for serious reasons," Gaillardetz said.

The bloggers and Catholic writers who so far have addressed the upcoming eco-encyclical have primarily pinpointed their concerns on how the document will handle climate change.

In a Jan. 7 letter, Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Acton Institute's Rome office, said, "It is one kind of problem if a Catholic disagrees with papal teaching on the Trinity or abortion; that Catholic's eternal soul would be considered at risk and all efforts would need to be made to correct his erroneous beliefs. It is an altogether different kind of problem if a Catholic disagrees with the pope on his diplomatic efforts or environmental views," matters where he said the church respects differences of opinion.

Questioning the science

Asked on his mid-January flight to the Philippines whether humans were largely at fault for a warming planet, the pope responded, "I don't know about entirely, but mainly, for the most part, it is human beings who abuse nature, constantly. ... I believe that man has gone too far."

Even before that comment, that the pope could make an affirming pronouncement on the validity of climate change and its supporting science appeared a shared apprehension.

In Crisis, Lu wrote, "It's reasonable for the Holy Father to use his moral authority to address ethical issues relating to climate change. However, he cannot claim infallibility, or even great expertise, in all the relevant empirical, economic and prudential questions that play into the controversies surrounding climate change."

Robert George said much of the same Jan. 3 in First Things: "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. ... 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."

In the U.K.-based Catholic Herald Jan. 2, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith said, "Our ethical principles, in so far as they are abstract, do not change with time, but the clear danger is that our moral pronouncements on something like climate change will look foolish or out of date with the passage of a few decades. ... Do we really understand what we are dealing with here?"

Royal told NCR, "The Holy See on this is likely to come down in an area of science that is not as settled as it thinks it is. And that it seems to me that it's likely to mix up what are good theological principles, principles of Catholic social teaching, with other things that are speculative."

In its fifth assessment report, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in November reported a 95-percent certainty that more than half of observed global surface temperature increases from 1951 to 2010 were human-caused. In addition, 97 percent of climate scientists concur that climate change is happening and is largely human-driven.

When presented with the scientific consensus, Royal remains unconvinced.

"Simply as a scientific matter, they can't know this. They can't. It doesn't fit with scientific procedure. You have to be able to pin down a single variable in a scientific experiment, vary that variable and see what the result is. I mean, they're speculating, as I am and as many other people are, as well," he said.

"I am not denying climate change. I'm not even denying that there could be severe climate change as a result of human activity. But what I am saying is that there's an awful lot of assumption about what we know and what we don't know, number one; and number two, if we do know that certain things are happening, what can be done about it?" he said.

Jayabalan of Acton, a free market think tank, also said he doesn't deny that climate change exists, that it changes all the time. Whether that has reached a situation requiring drastic actions, such as increasing environmental protections that will curtail economic growth, he is less certain.

"To say that the science requires us to do X, Y and Z, I'm skeptical about that because I'm not sure exactly if the problem has been adequately understood and described so that everyday people can make sense of it and help us understand what we should do about the problem," he said.

To support the position the climate has yet to reach crisis levels, Royal pointed to satellite and other measurements that indicate flat average global temperatures in the past 17 years -- the "pause" oft-cited among those unconvinced of the science, including by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) days before announcing his presidential campaign.

Critics of the position say it cherry-picks an extremely warm starting point (1998), and that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the "pause" followed a period of rapid acceleration. It also found that "each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850."

In addition, NOAA and NASA have reported nine of the 10 warmest years in terms of global surface temperature have occurred since 2000, with 1998 the tenth. Earth's average surface temperature has warmed by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, when record-keeping began.

The pope's opinion

Outside the science, concerns are that a strong papal statement on climate change or endorsement of U.N.-led climate action could cast the encyclical as a partisan document.

A position that demonizes capitalism for any climate chaos or, more generally, for environmental degradation, and calls for a new economic system could do just that, Jayabalan told NCR. Instead, he hopes Francis will challenge problems of materialism in a "throwaway culture" by promoting a humanistic perspective that views people not only as stewards of creation but also essential pieces to environmental solutions -- rather than the problem.

Royal believes there is a need for a more nuanced debate on environmental policy beyond typical binary Democrat-vs.-Republican conversations, and sees the church as an ideal host.

Recent polls, though, show public opinion may be shifting toward consensus. A February Reuters survey found two thirds of Americans believing world leaders "morally obligated" to reduce carbon emissions. About half of Republicans responding to a January New York Times poll said they were more likely to vote for a candidate endorsing climate action, and 60 percent favored federal emissions limits.

And a March Yale study found Catholics ahead of their Christian peers on acknowledging global warming (69 percent) and limiting carbon emissions, even at a higher cost to themselves (75 percent). In addition, a broad cohort of institutions, such as the U.S. Pentagon, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Goldman Sachs, Shell and General Mills, have either acknowledged climate change or taken steps in preparation.

As for the upcoming U.N. climate negotiations -- which Francis has said he hopes to influence through his encyclical -- several commentators worry the pope will place too much reliance on governments to make decisions benefitting the common good.

At Jan. 5, Thomas Peters predicted, "If the future of the human race comes down to the results of a UN meeting, we're doomed. The UN is neither competent nor at all friendly to the interests of the Church."

He added that "the pope can do better" than "legitimizing the UN and offering it the moral credibility of and association with the church."

Jayabalan, who worked for the Holy See's U.N. mission 1997-99, also expressed caution before the Vatican signs onto any agreement. He was skeptical that the traditional U.N. dynamic, pitting industrialized countries against developing nations, could simultaneously address poverty, development and the environment. Instead, Jayabalan endorses more local solutions.

"There's plenty of ways you can have less pollution and a cleaner environment that doesn't require international treaties, that don't require mandates from large government-owned institutions," he said.

Royal called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recommendation to cut emissions by as much as 72 percent by 2050 "utterly impossible."

Despite his own reservations on climate change, Royal said the church still should address the matter.

Francis "can encourage there to be a conversation about that in light of certain principles, but what is happening and how it's happening and whether it's happening and where it's happening, these are all things that are dependent on empirical studies and how to respond to them is a matter of policy. Those things, those are not absolute matters of faith and morals," Royal said.

Beyond policy issues, hopes are that the encyclical can help reorient people toward a more sacralized view of nature, that protection of creation implies the presence of a creator God and that environmental disasters disproportionately impact the poor. Even amid the numerous concerns, Royal anticipated conservative Catholics will not dispute the pope's authority in matters of faith and morals -- "that's one thing that one can say with a fair degree of confidence" -- but will question prudential judgments.

"There's a difference between [dissenting from the church position on abortion] and saying that the emissions goals for Europe and the United States or the miles per gallon goals for fleet cars in the U.S. ought to be so and so," he said.

Should Francis state that climate change is largely the result of human activity -- a position he hinted at during the mid-January press conference -- Jayabalan said he would view it as the pope's opinion, one "trying to serve a moral end, trying to get us to respect creation."

"As a faithful Catholic, I will take the encyclical seriously. I won't dismiss it if it doesn't agree with my interpretation of the facts. And I think it would be hasty for any of us to do so, especially for those of us that are Catholics," he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is]

Editor's note: Want more stories from Eco Catholic? We can send you an email alert once a week with the latest. Just go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the April 24-May 7, 2015 print issue under the headline: Pre-encyclical pushback.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters