Ethics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Weigel neuters the climate change encyclical

George Weigel
George Weigel

George Weigel

Imagine for a moment that you are George Weigel, Authorized Biographer of St. John Paul II, Apostle of Catholic Evangelicalism…uh, make that Evangelical Catholicism, and John M. Olin Professor of Religion and the Spirit of Capitalism at the Ethics and Public Policy Center on M Street in Washington, D.C. The word has gotten around that the current pope, the ever-so-worrisome Francis, is about to issue an encyclical on climate change — an encyclical these days being, according to the ultra-orthodox New Advent encyclopedia, how “the most important utterances of the Holy See have been given to the world.”

To wit, it’ll be an expression of the papal magisterium just one step short of an Apostolic Constitution. Yikes!

Panic is building among your like-minded friends, Catholic and otherwise. That man in Rome has more moral authority today than Jesus Christ Himself. Sure, you expect him to follow his namesake and hug a tree every now and then, but it’s something else to join forces with the Worshipers of Gaia and call into question the Divine Right of Capital to work its will upon the earth. How to keep any such message from getting through?

You know you can never win by a direct assault on a sitting pope, especially if you sit to his right, especially if he’s this popular. No, you’ve got to take him down carefully, subtly, all’italiana. Back in 2009, when Pope Benedict issued his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, you were clever enough to use a gold marker to identify the “obviously Benedictine” passages emphasizing “abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem-cell research,” and a red marker to indicate the “current Justice and Peace default positions.” The point being that lefties in the Vatican had smuggled in the bad stuff behind the back of the elderly pontiff. Ergo: a “duck-billed platypus” of an encyclical!

This time, something more, well, complicated and preemptive must be undertaken. So you start with a parable from the late first century: In the 24/7 news cycle of inside-the-Beltway Jerusalem, fractious Christians have become obsessed with Jesus’ position on the anti-Roman Zealots — such that the big debate over the new Gospel of Luke has to do with the identification of one of the disciples as “Simon, who was called the Zealot.” And they miss the whole point of the Gospel! In other words, 21st-century folks, nothing could be less important to the pope’s main concerns than climate change.

Okay, Okay. It’s an Encyclical. On. Climate. Change. But then you point out that the whole thing’s been ginned up by a self-promoting “third-tier Vatican official with a taste for gauchiste (that’s leftist) politics” who succeeded in getting the anti-Catholic Guardian to puff the prospect of a big global warming pronunciamento from the pontiff.  And, as the “inept Vatican press operation” stood idly by, the self-same bureaucrat staged a pre-encyclical climate change conference that defied the pope’s own stated wish for open discussion by excluding your pals from the climate-change-denying Heartland Institute.

As for papal environmentalism, what’s the big deal anyway? JPII and Benedict already said everything that Catholicism has to say on the subject. There’s no reason to think the current occupant of the See of Peter is about to offer “some sort of radically new departure in the list of subjects addressed by the papal magisterium.” It’ll be climate change without the science, embedded in a critique of today’s (lamentable) public moral culture — in other words, a “far more interesting context than that set by Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. bureaucracy, and the global-warming industry.”

The danger, of course, is that “the pope’s principal moral message is going to get lost in the spin cycle.” But until the pope gets around to reforming that inept Vatican press operation, at least you’ll be there to spin it through. Praise the Lord!


About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • The death throes of a movement are always to most audacious, the most dramatic, and the least rational. We are watching the end of the beast of climate-change-denial. I hope it’s not too late.

  • I’m not sure if the author of this piece is trying to neuter the encyclical or neuter Weigel.

  • This is just more hooey trying to portray the pope as “liberal” because he has opposition from the tea party branch of the GOP/Catholic Church. BIG MONEY establishment plutocrats are as supportive of the “pastoral” pope as they are of the “populist” Jeb Bush. The BIG MONEY plutocracy, not known for their stupidity, accepted climate change even before the general public and have invested in alternative sources of energy for decades. See:

  • Climate change, global warming, true, false? Whichever side you’re on there is little one can do about it. The earth has gone through climate changes since its birth. Are humans directly responsible for this current calamity, and can they reasonably reverse what they’ve done? Is the concern for human health the paramount concern, or is it all a reason to create new industries and products that some say we will all die if we don’t invest in them?
    If there is a Papal encyclical on this, it could only stress the need, as always, to take care of God’s Creation. It may stress the need for Industrial Nations to lead the world and share its knowledge freely with poor nations because it is their moral duty. It is doubtful that the Pope would state that climate change is this or not this, for that it is a matter for Science, not faith or morals.