Laudato Si represents Papal malpractice. There is simply no other way to say it. If we define “malpractice” as behavior by a professional that is improper or causes injury, then the pope’s recent encyclical fits the bill. The encyclical is improper because it asserts a number of things that are simply outside the authority of the papacy or the Catholic Church in general. It is improper because by focusing on this topic it neglects others that are both more pressing and more within the scope of its authority. It causes injury because many of its practical recommendations if taken seriously would arguably harm the poor whom it states are an object of the Church’s concern. It will not do to plod through all 190 odd pages and address it point by point. For those who have the patience you can find the actual encyclical in all its turgid Vatican style prose at this site:
I will confine myself to making some broad points citing elements of the encyclical as needed. First let’s get some full disclosure. This blog has no particular position about “climate change”. We are completely agnostic, because the question is a technical one best left to experts. Most people who are discussing it have no clue what they are talking about. There are really multiple questions:
• Is the planet warming?
• If so why? To what degree? How rapidly?
• What is causing it?
• What are the consequences of this warming?
• Can it be slowed or stopped? If so by what measures? What are the downsides of these measures?
Obviously the answers are complicated, requiring expertise in more than one field, including climatology, engineering, economics, public policy and so forth. I am not an expert in any of these things, nor is anyone in the Vatican either! Recently it has been claimed the Pope has some sort of scientific training. This is rather silly, the Pope taught the equivalent of high school chemistry, he is basically an educated lay person very far away from his chemistry teaching days.
While not a climate scientist, I am a familiar with how science works. It concerns me how very certain the climate change promoters are, and how very intolerant of dissent. Given the complexity of the question this seems to be a bit dogmatic. It is also concerning that there are accusations of data fudging on the part of some climate change promoters. You can read all about this here . Of course others deny the data has been tampered with. Who knows what it true? Certainly not Pope Francis! How could he possibly judge these competing claims? Perhaps, a bigger problem is that much of the predictions regarding climate change are based on computer models, and as anyone familiar with computer modeling knows, such models are jammed packed with estimates and best guesses. Tweaking the guesses can give very different results. This is discussed here as well as here. With all this in mind it seems like the non expert should tread lightly.
Instead the Pope comes down hard on the side of climate change. That would be tolerable were he simply talking to some journalist or answering questions during an interview. He is entitled to his opinion. The problem (and why the encyclical is malpractice) is that he cannot issue this opinion as Pope. The Pope has a charism when instructing on faith and morals. When discussing other things he is just another dude, and may not be a particularly well informed dude at that. He is creating all kinds of confusion because sprinkled in this encyclical are a hodgepodge of ideas,some that are valid and some that are absurd with much in between. Every now and then there is a moral principle articulated on which the Pope can actually speak with authority, but even in these cases he is either talking about things that have nothing to do with the environment, and will likely be lost as they lack a clear connection to the rest of the encyclical, ( for example comments on the sanctity of human life, which we applaud ) , or are relatively trite ( humans have a moral duty not to destroy the environment since this is the only planet we have, and we have a duty to care for the poor…) Most of the 40,000 words of this encyclical are discussing all kinds of other things that the Pope knows nothing about. As such it confounds teachings which need to be heeded with things that are proclaimed but are simply incorrect and even harmful.
The real damage is done when the encyclical dabbles in economic issues. The renowned French Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson famously is quoted as saying “Piety is no substitute for technique” This means merely high sounding phrases and good intentions are not enough when seeking to help those around us. In fact the validity of our recommendations matters. As we have pointed out in the past, both a highly skilled physician and an aging, impaired or ill physician who is no longer competent both might say they want to help the sick, and in fact both might want to, but the impaired doctor might lack the requisite knowledge and his recommendations might be so wrong as to be dangerous. The Vatican claims to want to help the poor, but is living in an alternative universe. In the Vatican’s world poverty is stagnant and even worsening as a consequence in part of an unrestricted and rapacious market ideology. In the real world that we actually inhabit, worldwide poverty has been rapidly decreasing over the last 20 years, indeed it has been cut by 50%, with literally billions lifted out of bone crushing poverty. The reason for this happy event has been global economic growth driven by great expansion of market economies. This has been amply described in many places and you can read about it here as well as here .
Much of the encyclical attacks markets as somehow intrinsically flawed and simply ignores this world wide trend in poverty reduction. Some of this attack is against the straw man of a completely unregulated free market. In one particularly bizarre passage the encyclical asks how a completely unregulated market could hope to contain human trafficking, or the drug trade… Who is advocating such a completely unregulated market and where on the planet does such a thing exist (indeed where has it ever existed?) If the economic theories of this encyclical were to be uncritically adopted the poor would remained mired in poverty longer. As Gilson implied, technique matters. No one argues for completely unregulated capitalism but rather for a market economy that is constrained by reasonable, limited and prudent regulation. This is in fact what St. John Paul II’s much more reasonable encyclical Centisimus Annus advocated.
Ah well… the final point is that this is a bizarre time to write an encyclical on this topic. We have wide spread apostasy, Muslim Jihadist murdering Christians throughout the Middle East and Africa… A drop of in the number of people who feel religion in general and Christianity in particular offers meaning in their lives. It seems any of these things would have been a more suitable topic than a long meandering journey through climate change. The pope simply would have done a much greater service if instead of writing an encyclical that reads like some NGO Committee at the United Nations, he wrote something more based in Catholic theology, philosophy or tradition. Areas where the Pope has some knowledge and authority.
Now we are left with this mess. May St. John Paul II pray for us!