It’s Infallible: Pope Francis’ Statements on the Scientific Details of Climate Change Aren’t Binding on Catholics
But a papal adviser, Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, apparently didn't get the memo.
Catholics now have it on good authority that the pope can predict the weather a hundred years out. The claim confirms as true something Evelyn Waugh once wrote as a joke. In Brideshead Revisited, the character Rex Mottram is a scheming, insincere convert to Catholicism. Eager to please, he tells the priest instructing him whatever he thinks he will want to hear. Hence the following priceless exchange, which starts with a question from the priest:
“So you understand the dogma of papal infallibility?”
“Oh yes Father.”
“Suppose the pope says that it’s going to rain tomorrow. Does that mean it will rain?”
“Oh yes Father.”
“But supposing it doesn’t rain, what then?”
“Well … Uh … I guess it would be, ah, spiritually raining. Only … We were too sinful to see it!”
So the earth must be spiritually warming, but scientists such as William Briggs are “too sinful to see it.” That’s the message of Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, a close advisor to Pope Francis, who said as much during a contentious public colloquium on December 3 in Rome. As LifeSiteNews reported:
[I]n his address Bishop Sorondo spoke of “global warming” saying that in Laudato Si “for the first time in the Magisterium” Pope Francis “denounces the scientifically identifiable causes of this evil, declaring that: ‘a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases released mainly as a result of human activity.’” He repeated the point later, saying, “faith and reason, philosophical knowledge and scientific knowledge, are brought together for the first time in the pontifical Magisterium in Laudato Si.”
This led to a heated exchange with panel presenters at the conference, especially journalist Riccardo Cascioli, who objected to the suggestion that Catholics must submit to pronouncements on “scientific theories” rather than “faith and morals.”
Sorondo retorted by saying, “When the Pope has assumed this, it is Magisterium of the Church whether you like it or not — it is the Magisterium of the Church just as abortion is a grievous sin — equal (it is the same) … it is Magisterium of the Church … whether you like it or not.”
So Catholics who deny that human beings are causing catastrophic global warming, and that it must be stopped through drastic restrictions on our use of energy, are morally equivalent to pro-choice politicians like Nancy Pelosi — who by church law should not even be receiving Holy Communion. Or so says the learned Bishop Sorondo, the Chancellor of both the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
Fossil Fuels Equal Abortion
Sorondo’s assertion is staggering, and has staggering political implications. Count on dozens of social justice Catholic bloggers to use Sorondo’s statement relentlessly in coming months, trying to convince voters that, according to the Vatican, global warming is an equivalent issue to abortion. So pro-life candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who reject the Paris Climate agreement are no better than those such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders who want to fund Planned Parenthood’s baby-parts business. So you’re free to vote for Bernie Sanders.
Sorondo was willing to admit — under pressure from questions by fellow participants, including Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute and Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.— that Pope Francis’ climate forecasts are not taught infallibly. That is, they are not part of the “Extraordinary Magisterium” (teaching authority), which refers to the short list of declarations by Church councils and popes that invoked their maximum authority and were meant to settle questions once and for all — as when the Council of Nicaea affirmed the full, co-equal divinity of Christ. Pope Francis said explicitly that he wasn’t invoking that kind of authority. That authority, by the way, is NOT divine inspiration of the sort that the authors of the Bible enjoyed, but instead concerns statements guarded from error by a divine “death veto”: Catholics believe that God would strike a pope dead before He allowed the pope to teach error accompanied by a claim that the teaching was an “infallible” claim meant for the whole church. (See video below.)
Bishop Sorondo claimed that Pope Francis’ statement on global warming was part of another, less stringent kind of “Magisterium,” which doesn’t claim infallible guidance. The “Ordinary Magisterium” refers to the pope’s and bishops’ authority to pass along basic teachings of Christianity that came down to us from the apostles — teachings which for one reason or another, no pope or council ever got around to defining infallibly.
If that sounds less problematic, then bear with me for a moment as I explain the nature of the Magisterium. This will make it clear how truly strange the bishop’s claim is.
Christians were spreading the faith for decades before the texts of New Testament was complete, and centuries before it was officially canonized, and even after that they had no access to printing presses. The followers of Christ reported to the world what that they had seen and what Jesus told them, and the Gospels were composed from these oral traditions as well as from — as in the case of the apostles Matthew and John — eyewitness reporting by the Gospel authors themselves.
But the New Testament doesn’t contain everything Jesus taught the apostles. As we read in John 21:25, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Catholics and Orthodox believe that this is a reference to the oral teachings that Jesus passed on to the apostles, which they put into practice and passed along, without including them in the Gospels. It was against the rich body of Christian oral teaching that had been passed on by preaching and testimony that the bishops judged the very books of the New Testament, when they drew up the canon of scripture, weeding out hundreds of inauthentic, even heretical “gospels.”
The Ordinary Magisterium, then, is the body of what all orthodox Christians have believed since the very beginning, throughout the world, because it was taught to them accurately by evangelists who were passing along what their bishops had learned from the Apostles — except for those truths that people misunderstood so seriously that council or popes were forced to define them infallibly, which really is Extraordinary.
The Law Written on the Human Heart
Of course, Christians don’t just have faith. When we’re doing it right, we also have morals. Those morals have two sources: divine revelation that came from God via the Bible, and the natural law that’s written on the human heart by its Creator. Often these two sources overlap: The moral import of each of the Ten Commandments can be demonstrated by honest reasoning from accurate premises. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man about what he called the “Tao,” the core principles of moral decency that virtually all cultures share to one to degree or another, most of which can be deduced from the Golden Rule. Divine Revelation sharpens, clarifies, and makes these moral insights more persuasive, by making them essential to our relationship with God in this life — and, more ominously, in the next.
From the very beginning, the apostles (and with them St. Paul) and then the bishops whom they appointed as their successors, imitated Jesus by drawing moral conclusions from His message. They taught them with the authority of their office, which came from Christ, and Christians listened. That is why Christians know better than to imitate King Solomon and marry hundreds of women, or to get to heaven quicker by committing suicide. (Neither point is explicitly addressed in the New Testament.) They also knew these things because bishops taught them. From the very beginning, Christian bishops followed the Jews and the clear dictates of reason in rejecting abortion at any point in pregnancy, almost two thousand years before scientists fully understood the biological details of sperm and egg. Because this rejection was shared by all faithful Christians since the beginning, it is considered part of the Ordinary Magisterium.
Of course we don’t have to have the pope (or even the Bible) to know that abortion is wrong. The great pro-life physician and research scientist Jerome Lejeune said without hesitation when a journalist asked him what he would do if the church were to approve abortion: “I would leave the Catholic church.” The church, and indeed the Bible, make claims on our belief because they encapsulate and reaffirm the most profound moral insights that we have as human beings, which our God-given reason provides us. In fact, these sources of divine Revelation call us to standards that are even higher than reason; unlike the Quran, they never dip below it.
It is to this august, venerable body of sacred tradition, the Ordinary Magisterium which contains the central mysteries and moral injunctions of the Christian faith, that Bishop Sorondo wishes to admit the “science” of “climate change,” whose factual assertions and statistical predictions Catholics must accept on pain of serious sin. Or so he says. In claiming that, Sorondo is acting not as a theologian, but rather as a functionary attached to the Latin American tradition of the caudillo, the charismatic leader who demands obedience and deference, on the model of Hugo Chavez or Juan Peron.
Needless to say, the church could not possibly teach what Sorondo says it does. Here’s an easy test of whether a question is subject to the authority of the church, or indeed of the Bible. Just answer these questions:
- Can it be deduced from the contents of divine Revelation?
- Can it be deduced from the moral law written on our hearts?
If you answer “no” to both, the issue is beyond the authoritative teaching of the Church and the bishops. The Christian faith alone does not teach us the details of chemistry, astronomy, metallurgy, economics or political science, though it offers moral standards on the proper use of each. So it is intrinsically impossible for the pope, as pope, to speak with any more authority on the details of climate science than any other non-scientist. Nor is he better suited than you or I to evaluate the so-called “consensus” of actual scientists. He might as well be picking stocks or rewriting the scores of Broadway musicals, for which he has equal divine authority: none.
Now it’s true that the pope has the authority to promote and reaffirm the truths that clearly follow from natural law. So if Pope Francis were to say simply, “It is sinful to render the earth uninhabitable,” he would be correct, and within his rights. But on questions of whether that is happening, why it’s occurring or what’s the best way to do something about it, he has no special authority.
So I guess I’ll have to scratch that start-up idea I had, of an infallible Vatican weather channel.