The Climate Change Encyclical: The Pope, The Warming, And the Ugly

As has been first leaked and then officially released, the vicar of Christ published an encyclical about taking action on climate change, in particular making it a moral issue. Reading the long document from the Vatican, it tries to lay out a response in showing a growing precedent in papal concerns about the environment as well as the morality of the use of natural resources to destructive ends for short-term gains. Some of the most interesting quotes on that point came from Pope John Paul II, such as the need to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology” (italics in original).

The production of this statement hasn’t been a surprise, and conservative voices in America had already been making statements about how the Pope should keep out of this debate. As well stated by The Onion: Frustrated Republicans Argue Pope Should Leave Science To Scientists Who Deny Climate Change. The irony is also very strong because Pope Francis has training in the natural sciences, namely as a chemical technician (but not a Masters in chemistry as has been reported, as noted by Forbes).

However, because of the nature of the response by the Vatican to take up the challenge of combating climate change, it may do more to polarize than the advance the conversation. The biggest issue with the acceptance of anthropogenic global warming is a political and psychological one, in that the acceptance of man-made climate change goes against the moral feelings of deniers. It suggests that standard free enterprise and industrial work is a negative force and requires something like government regulation or communal forces to undermine free trade. So no wonder Fox News voices are calling the Pope “dangerous” among other things. Then again, I have to imagine that so long as millions of people feel that someone like the Pope has the moral high ground it will be hard to put all of that cognitive dissonance aside. What the future will hold when it comes to public opinion on the reality of climate change and how to respond to it we will have to wait and see.

As for how to respond to it, things like carbon taxes and other market-based approaches certainly appear to be viable ways to go forward without abandoning basic capitalism–and really, it doesn’t undermine capitalism at all since it is forcing polluters to actually pay for the damage they cause and have prices reflect it (see externalities). However, other ways to combat the problem appear to have run against some points of Catholic dogma. As Lawrence Krauss notes, the encyclical doesn’t allow for dealing with population growth (see paragraph 50 of the encyclical). While it is certainly true that even without population growth the fact that poorer people want to have and will access more technology that produces carbon dioxide (be that cars or machines that have to be built and thus contributed to global warming, or the greater demand for meat) obviously having still more people wanting the same can only accelerate this issue. Also, demanding that we be less of consumers (paragraph 206) and it seems to be a part of a larger woe about technology and commerce. It is then less surprising that the encyclical saying nothing about discovering new energy sources and instead a call for less demand and more efficiency (192) and even some poo-pooing nuclear power (184), which may be one of the avenues we must take to reduce carbon emissions and still keep the lights on.

On the other hand, are the particulars for how the Pope wants to combat climate change really going to have an effect? The real point of the coverage of this story is the fact that the faith leader of over 1 billion people is calling for action on this serious issue, and it is that soundbite that will have any chance of resonating. The worst that I can expect is what will happen with Protestant response and how that could get into battles of biblical exegesis. Plenty of Christians have tried to say that the Bible tells them to subdue the world and make it work for humankind. Others want to highlight the aspect of environmental stewardship. I will be curious to see how that debate goes.

Bottom line: the papal call for environmental action is more likely to help in the long run, but I can expect to see a lot of push-back from the powers that be who want to maintain the status quo. For me, I’m onboard the Francis train.

Pope Says Atheists Go to Heaven?

The new leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has been making plenty of news since taking over in March. Not only is it the case that he may have exorcised demons in public very recently (very old school), but now he seems to have blessed the infidels (not-so old school).

In his Wednesday sermon, he stated the following:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! …‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

From this, it appears His Holiness is blessing everybody: Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, pagan, and atheist. His mention of meeting “one another there” could be a reference to the afterlife, so is the Pope saying everybody is going to heaven, even the non-believers?

Do you really think the leader of the church, Christ’s vicar on Earth, is going to say he doesn’t hold the keys of heaven first given to St. Peter? If you do, I know an antisemitic rabbi for you to meet that sells bridges.

The Pope’s message is actually that everyone is capable and ought to do good. This includes infidels, that they too are in the image of God, and God does good, so everyone ought to do good. That’s the theology happening here, not the idea of universalism, which was supported by some early church figures. For the Pope to declare universalism would require him going ex cathedra on this, someone only very rarely done, and that would have been really big news, not to mention something more than just a sermon message. Lots of paperwork to do in the holy bureaucracy.

However, this message from the Pope is marked in how it undoes a notion so many attach to non-believers, that they are immoral or incapable of doing good. Pope Francis strongly rebukes that, using the Gospel of Mark as his foundation for his argument. So while what he has said is perfectly compatible with traditional dogma, his modernization of message and tone is certainly more welcoming to non-Catholics and non-Christians generally.

However, there is another layer of theology at play, it would seem. The notion of redemption here is being used by the Pope to say all can do good, and this can bring people together (“But do good: we will meet one another there”). It would seem to suggest that by works Christians and non-Christians can come to salvation, you can come to redemption. This point is made in the comments of Fr. James Martin’s Facebook post (who gave a quote for the HuffPo post on this news event):

He’s saying be a good person, do good works, and if you do those things you will be opening yourself to Christ’s redeeming love.

This gets into points of arguments among Christian denominations. The biggest contrast to this would probably be Calvinists who see grace as unconditionally given to humans at God’s choosing, and God had made his plan on who to save timelessly; you did nothing and could do nothing to earn grace and was decided before existence itself. Others will argue that faith is all that matters, and works are not so important, though being anti-social probably isn’t a good idea. You can find biblical support for whatever you want, I don’t care. The point here is that the Pope’s message of inclusion and the encouragement for all to do good deeds requires an idea of soteriology that is divisive in modern Christianity. So while the Pope will let those with ears hear him, there will be plenty that simply cannot.

Pope Benedict on the Way Out

As has been widely reported, the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, is set to resign at the end of the month, citing weakening health. Sources include a statement from His Holiness, various higher-ups in the church, and the Pope’s brother in Germany. Apparently he had been feeling weakness for some months, and the stresses of the job have become overwhelming. As noted, this is the first time a pope as resigned willingly in centuries, and the example cited of such as are interesting. For example, Clement V retired from the papacy after only five months (1294), which was due to him simply preferring his more solitary lifestyle. Gregory XII (1415), on the other hand, left the papacy as part of the deal to end the Great Schism when there was more than one pope and fears of war (and the end times) were high. Other popes that left office include Benedict IX (1048) who sold the position and became pope again, and John XVIII (1009) who allegedly died shortly after retiring. So  you need to go back about a thousand years to see a possible example of a pope leaving for health reasons.

Part of the reason may well have been the stresses from the child abuse scandals which have been rocking the church for much of Benedict’s tenure, and there have been plenty of other flare-ups noted by Tom that are likely to have added to job significant strain. However, I think we all know the real reason he left the Holy See: he was so broken up over my review of his book (1, 2, 3). That is the power of my blog. Fear me!

Plans are to elect a new pope by the end of March in time for Easter (which is March 31 this year). I will be interested to see who will replace him, perhaps someone less conservative.

Oh, I know someone for the post: a life-long Catholic of the Dominican order who is recently not in a job: Thomas Brodie. Brodie for Pope! Yeah, it would be interesting for a Jesus mythicist to lead the church. Well, I’m sure stranger things have happened in Vatican City.

The Pope on the Nativity Part 3 am hoping to make this my last post on the short book about the Nativity of Jesus by Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). So far, from what I can tell, I have been one of the few bloggers going through and being critical of its historical contents, which I will continue here. For background, my first post looked at the apparent lack of engagement with the best literature on the subject of Jesus’ birth, including Raymond Brown’s Birth of the Messiah. My second post looked at the arguments His Holiness used to defend the historicity of certain details of the Gospel(s) version(s) of the birth of Christ and how his own arguments were not correctly applied.

As for the rest of the blogosphere, here is what I have found around the Internet:

Jim West highlights a news report about the book and how the Pope says Jesus was not born in 0 AD; Jim asks so what else is new? A similar feeling can by seen with Sonja of Women in Theology who found this volume boring compared to the prior two books by Ratzinger on Jesus. She also notes there really isn’t any debunking in the book at all, but is actually very traditional (I agree). Timothy at Catholic Bibles finds some of the news going around silly, though he does get a kick out of the tongue-in-cheek post “The Pope Hates Christmas”. There the author has more criticism at the media than the Pope. Lastly, one of the few blog posts critical of the book’s historical criticism comes from Bart Ehrman, though most of that post is behind a pay wall (with the proceeds going to charitable causes). It also looks like Ehrman is working on a collection of English translations of the non-canonical infancy gospels. That seems like something useful.

So with that link-farm out of the way, let’s see what else His Holiness is up to. As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I wanted to focus on how the Pope interprets the Star of Bethlehem, the reason I wanted to read this book in the first place. First off, this can be considered historic for the discussion of the Star; the last time someone high up in the Catholic hierarchy endorsed astronomy or astrology to interpret the Star was Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly almost exactly 600 years ago. But now the Bishop of Rome has considered naturalistic possibilities for the Star, which seems unprecedented based on my research.

But upon re-reading, it seems that Benedict tip-toes around the subject. Continue reading

The Pope’s New Book on Jesus’ Birth. Now He’s in Trouble!

There has been a fair bit of press about the newest publication from the current head of the Catholic Church, Joseph Ratzinger, better known now as Pope Benedict XVI (don’t you just hate sequels?). There was even a humorous take on some of the aspects of the new book from the colossus of comedy Stephen Colbert.

But the hub-bub is mostly about how the Pope is saying certain parts of the standard idea of the Christmas scene are not found in the Bible. For example, there are no animals to be seen in the Nativity stories, though you can hardly find a Renaissance painting or Christmas card without them. Pretty small potatoes, really, but it’s really a matter of His Holiness doing some historical criticism related to the Christianity. This is also up his alley. The current occupant of Saint Peter’s position in the church was a bookish man, served as an expert in the Second Vatican Council, and wrote considerably before becoming pope. However, most of what he wrote, going by the bibliography on Wikipedia, is primarily theological rather than historical, especially historical criticism of the Bible itself.

So why care about it, especially if you aren’t a Catholic? Continue reading