Brian Johnstone. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ and Cardinal Pell.

Jul 22, 2015

Cardinal George Pell has criticized Pope Francis’ ground-breaking environmental encyclical. As Pell told the Financial Times on Thursday, July 14, “It’s got many, many interesting elements. There are parts of it which are beautiful,” he said. “But the Church has no particular expertise in science … the Church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters. We believe in the autonomy of science.”

In the encyclical Laudato Si’ Pope Francis engages his readers on three levels; the first is that of science, the second is that of faith and theology the third is that of reasoned ethics.

The first level is represented by chapter One of the document, (pars, 17-52). It has been generally acknowledged that the document presents the consensus of the majority of competent scientists. There are some scientists who hold differing views, but they are clearly in the minority. It is reasonable and responsible on the part of the Pope and his advisors to provide an account of the interpretation of the facts on which they base their further reflections. It is perfectly clear that that Pope, in this section, is not appealing to his religious authority to support the description of the contemporary ecological situation. He is reporting the consensus of scientists, who competence he acknowledges. If someone has different views, then a reasonable and responsible reply would be to present the scientific evidence for that view.

It is quite misplaced to insist that the Church has no authority on scientific questions. The Cardinal, however, asserts, “We believe in the autonomy of science.” Well, who are “we” in this matter? Pell and his fellow climate change deniers? Does he think that the Pope needs to be corrected on this point? The pope well understands what “the autonomy of science” means. The Pope, in contrast to His Eminence, was educated in science and had the assistance of internationally recognized scientists in composing this encyclical.

Pell states that the Catholic Church has “no particular expertise in science.” Pope Francis nowhere claims that the Church has such competence. What he does offer is a responsible account of his interpretation of the contemporary scientific consensus. If someone wishes to offer a differing view they ought to provide supporting evidence to support that view.

At a second level, the encyclical engages in reflection on faith and so enters the sphere of theology. (pars. 55-100) It is in this section that Pope Francis introduces what Professor Joseph Camilleri describes as a seismic shift in mainstream Christian thought: human life is essentially defined in its relationship to God, to others and to the earth. There is a clear move beyond an earlier anthropocentric view; the relation between nature and humanity is a crucial dimension of the encyclical. This important theme has entirely escaped Pell.

The third level is that of ethics. Reasonable ethical argument presupposes a responsible account of the relevant facts. This is provided by Pope Francis in the first section of the encyclical. In the following sections the Pope develops a critical, culturally informed ethical response which Pell ignores.   John Allen reports that despite the cardinal’s criticism of the pope’s environmental stance, Pell noted the encyclical had been “very well received” and said Francis had “beautifully set out our obligations to future generations and our obligations to the environment.” These final animadversions can sound quite patronizing. Cardinal Pell is prepared to grant that the views of the Pope are indeed “beautiful,”—even if without a secure basis in scientific reasoning. But Cardinal Pell himself provides no reasoned argument in support is his assertions.

In the sphere of climate science, Cardinal Pell is himself no authority, but is rather at the mercy of his own bias. Perhaps he needs to re-read the Pope’s document, and update his previous views on climate change and the broader issues of ecology.


Brian Johnstone. C.SS.R. is a Redemptorist priest.


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