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A Discouraging Word in “Laudato Si”

In an encyclical of nearly 40,000 words, there’s a lot in Laudato Si with which to agree and disagree, and, God knows, there’s been plenty of praise and rancor from commentators so far.

On the day that Sandro Magister of L’Espresso released an Italian copy ahead of the Vatican’s embargo date, I cut and pasted big chunks of the encyclical into Google Translate, which – by the way – was surprisingly accurate. But I didn’t give the document a full and faithful reading until the official English translation became available.

I will admit that I was a “global warming” skeptic before reading Laudato Si, and I remain so after reading and thinking about it over the last week.

Pope Francis doesn’t need for me to praise his work only to then do an “on the other hand,” so let me be blunt. He lost me when he used the word consensus: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”

Now this is a really big problem with really big potential implications, and I don’t know if any pope has ever made such a questionable assertion in an encyclical – questionable in its endorsement of the notion of “scientific consensus.”

The writer Michael Crichton was a remarkable man. Just about everybody knows him as the author of a string of remarkable bestselling novels that began in 1969 with The Andromeda Strain (actually his sixth novel, but the first written under his own name) and ended with the techno-thriller, Next, published posthumously in 2006, the year after Dr. Crichton’s death from cancer. (Two other reconstructed novels have been published since then.) In between, of course, were The Terminal Man, The Great Train Robbery . . . and Jurassic Park. He wrote twenty-seven novels in all.

What some may not know about Crichton is that he received an M.D. from Harvard in 1969. He did postgraduate work at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. He never actually practiced medicine, because he always wanted to be a writer. I give this background to indicate why Crichton may be taken seriously on the subject of science.

In a lecture at Cal Tech in 2003, he famously said: “There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”

Earth: January 1, 2015

The title of that lecture was “Aliens Cause Global Warming,” and its message was a cautionary tale about how “science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity.” He took on popularizers of scientific fads such as Carl “Nuclear Winter” Sagan and Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich. The popularity of their doom-and-gloom prophecies was based on a kind of peer-pressure, consensus politics that endured until the prognosticators were proved false.

Dr. Crichton then applied actual scientific discipline to the global warming scare. We call it “climate change” now, since recent data seem to contradict the “warming” scenario. (This linguistic adaptation is like the way “homosexuals” became “gay,” and “socialists” were rechristened “progressives.”) Crichton concluded:

Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?

Obviously, I would not be writing this if I didn’t agree with Michael Crichton’s position with regard to consensus in this context. And, if you also agree, we’re left with real worry that Pope Francis may have walked out on a limb that may be sawed off behind him. (Recall how Father Georges Lemaître convinced Popes Pius XI and XII not to assert that his work confirmed the Biblical account of Creation [1], even though it seemed to.)

And there’s another worry. If the pope believes consensus is sufficient to encourage the world’s policy makers to adopt draconian decisions with regard to economic policy, such as outlawing air conditioners, what might he think if the consensus among bishops in October is to change some of the core teachings of the Church on marriage and sexuality?

I know, of course, that some will say I’m mixing the apples of climate science with the oranges of moral theology. Or that the new climatologists are right on the facts (but, if so, why refer to consensus?) and that the old moralists are wrong about Church rules concerning marriage, divorce, annulment, and the reception of the Eucharist (and, if so, why a magisterium?). Or that (and this is my hope) far from overturning, for example, Humanae Vitae, Pope Francis will reject the German consensus and reaffirm Catholic tradition after the October synod.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in the Illustrated London News (1907): “Right is Right even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong about it.” Obviously, I don’t know if those who believe in anthropogenic global warming are right. I’ve not studied the data, which anyway I wouldn’t understand. More than that, I don’t know if specific solutions offered (by Francis or anybody else) will succeed in lowering global temperatures in – as the pope writes in the sentence just before his endorsement of scientific consensus – “a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life.” [Italics added.] And there’s real reason to doubt that most solutions are politically viable [2].

A last thing: the pope’s liberality – as, for instance, in placing the atheist neo-totalitarian and abortion-and-contraceptive advocate H.J. Schellnhuber (who has, quite unconvincingly, tried to deny what his record confirms) among those included in the launch of the encyclical – will win him no actual friends on the Left. Francis’ single, tepid mention of the horror of abortion (how it too lacks “concern for the protection of nature”) has been and will continue to be ignored by those with whom he has made common cause.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.