But now we see a pope actually talking sense about climate change and man's responsibility for it and for once the Catholic Church isn't supporting the right-wing and the forces of reaction. From a quick skim through an English translation of his encyclical, Laudato Si', it appears to be well informed and even well-argued. No doubt Pope Francis is not personally the author of it and has depended a great deal on his science advisers to do the actual science but that doesn't detract from his responsibility for the contents, and he deserves praise for it.
The problem is Pope Francis and his science advisers only seem to have grasped half the problem. They seem to have a good grasp on the immediate problem, and the consequences, but not of the underlying cause. Maybe they're a little shy on that because a large measure of the blame for the underlying cause must be laid at the door of the Vatican.
Firstly, why has it taken so long for the Catholic Church to come down on the side of science? The ecology movement has been arguing that mankind's activities are harming the environment and pose a threat to the long-term survival of the planet (and life on it) for over half a century, at least since Rachel Carson's seminal 1962 book, Silent Spring, which probably more than anything to start the modern Green movement.
Useful and welcome though this belated 'conversion' is, it of course exposes several logical inconsistencies in Catholic dogma and basic Christian teaching. For example:
- The arrogant belief that Earth and all life on it has been created for the exclusive use of mankind which is the rationale behind Western cultural assumptions that we have some sort of dominion over the creatures that we have the great good fortune to share a planet with. This was one of the first pieces of Christian dogma that worried me even as a child before I finally rejected the entire notion of gods. I'm not a vegetarian but I still struggle with the idea that somehow a human life is more important or intrinsically more valuable than that of another animal.
- The belief that a loving god is watching over us and created us to love and worship him. How would such a creator god just watch and do nothing as we destroyed ourselves and the planet it had created specially? This would mean that mankind is more powerful than this god and can thwart its plans. Is it logical to assume, in effect, that human free-will can override this god's free-will and yet this god which is either powerless, indifferent or complicit in this environmental destruction is still worth worshipping and praying to?
- The creator god has a plan for us all. Of course, this is inconsistent with the notion of free-will because free-will implies a changeable future whereas a divine plan requires an unchangeable future, but it is also inconsistent with the idea that human actions can determine the future of the planet and, unless they do so, the creator's plans will be thwarted in that it won't have humans to worship it and its reason for creating everything will have been pointless - unless of course it planned for us to destroy all life on Earth.
This is nothing more than we should expect as the Vatican struggles to look modern and in touch, and above all, scientific, while sticking as much as it can to a Bronze Age superstition. The cracks and inept attempt to paper over the joins are bound to be more and more noticeable at time goes by and the difference between the dogma and the reality widen.
But perhaps the biggest inconsistency in the entire thing is that it fails to acknowledge the basic problem - population growth. Population growth is the biggest single cause of the increasing demand for land on which to grow food, more energy to provide housing, transport, water, sanitation and all the basic essentials of the life to which all people aspire and, increasingly in the developing economies, to provide the same standard of living to which we in the developed world have become accustomed and which we too wish to maintain. We now have the two countries with the largest populations, China and India, with the quickest growing economies and the fastest rising demand for energy.
And yet the Catholic Church has vigorously opposed all attempts at population control through planned parenthood and available contraception, on the superstitious notion that every sex act should be procreational and that to avoid unwanted pregnancy by anything other than abstinence, or at least avoiding sex during a woman's fertile period, is somehow a profane denial of their god's plan to create another human being.
The whole notion of allowing a rhythm method form of contraception while arguing that a barrier or hormonal method is somehow a profanity is idiotic. All these methods involve the same 'wasted' sperms and ova and can all be presented as thwarting a creator god. The idea comes from the biologically ignorant notion that sperm is a seed and that sex plants a new human in a woman. It pays no heed to the necessity, or 'waste', of the ovum, which wasn't know about when the superstition took hold. Nuns and priests avoiding sex is no less a waste of potential human life than is using a condom, taking a contraceptive pill or aborting an embryo.
The sheer illogicality of the Catholic Church's stance on contraception belies the fact that it is not a scientific doctrine or even a theological doctrine but one intended to keep the Catholic population high, poor and hopeless, and so dependent on the Church and its religion for hope for something better and on its priesthood to ensure their piety and compliance.
If Pope Francis is serious about halting damaging climate change, the first thing he should be doing is reversing the ban on contraception and instead using some of the Church's vast wealth to send nuns and priest out into the third world and into the developing economies to teach about the need for family planning and to ensure a supply of contraception and family planning services is available for those most in need of it. The cardinal sin should not be the prevention of unwanted pregnancy but the failure to prevent it. The Pope should be telling people not just that there is no need to breed like rabbits as he told the people of the Philippines, but where to go to get the necessary preventative measure. He should be telling his congregation that the real sin is adding to the problem of an increasingly overpopulated planet.
The next few years will be interesting from a political perspective. The political right and vested business interests which have been behind the climate-denier, evidence-denier, industry which has poured scorn on any notion that Earth is actually heating up at an alarming rate, is generally the same political right that has become closely associated with Christian fundamentalism. Indeed, the same self-deception techniques and the same appeals to the self-interest and greed of scientifically illiterate population used by climate-deniers is used by science-deniers in general.
These people will now be in a quandary. How to continue to appeal to the Christian fundamentalism when the Pope is against them?
Will we see the right wing turning on the Catholic Church or will we see Catholics cherry-picking what docrine to follow and what to ignore as they do with evolution, where Catholic doctrine says evolution is a fact and Earth is old in a much older Universe, while prominent Catholics like Michael Behe and William Dembski continue to argue for a young Earth, six-day creation and intelligent design instead of evolution because, quite frankly, no pope has yet had the courage to explicitly state that Genesis is allegorical, not literal, and is nothing more than Bronze Age origin myth about which we now know better.
By riding two horses, popes have managed to keep both scientifically literate and scientifically ignorant people on side. It's possible to argue that evolution happens and that God did it, and stay within the Doctrine of the Faith. It's also possible to argue that the Genesis is literally true because a day can mean millions of years - as many as you need.
But, climate change is much more important than is belief in evolution. It is even more important than the issue of what should be included in the science curricula of public schools. However, it's not possible to argue that it is and isn't happening simultaneously, nor that it's merely allegorical. There is no fence to sit on nor two horses to ride on this issue.
The second thing Pope Francis needs to do if he is serious about climate change is to make climate denial as much a 'sin' as was using a condom or taking contraceptive pills. The Vatican should be ordering priests and nuns to support the teaching of climate science and the importance of reducing our carbon footprint and taking measures to reduce waste, deforestation, convenience foods, use of throw-away plastics as packaging, and turning vast areas of the planet into monocultures to feed an ever-expanding population.
If Pope Francis really wants people to take their responsibility for minimising the damage their presence does to the planet, he needs to tell them they are on their own. There is no magic sky daddy watching over and protecting them. The survival of their life-support system on spaceship Earth is their responsibility and no-one elses. Whether our species lives or dies or becomes just another victim of man-made mass extinction is down to us.
Pope Francis He should tell people that, if they want their grandchildren to inherit a planet fit to live in they have to start seeing themselves not as the owners of it, to do with it as they wish, but as guests who should aspire to leave it in at least as good a condition as they found it. First, do no harm.
We don't inherit the Earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children. If the Pope could abandon the vestiges of the Bronze Age superstition which has sustained the Catholic Church for centuries, with so much wealth sitting in the Vatican and elsewhere, as Stephen Fry said, the Catholic Church could be an effective force for good in the world. It could be at the forefront of efforts to save the planet from the effects of the anthropocentric arrogance Catholic superstition encouraged in the first place.
So, seven out of ten for Pope Francis' effort. He just needs to think it through a little more and decide whether his superstition and the survival of his satrapy is more or less important than the survival of Earth. It doesn't take a genius to work it out.