'The Church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters.'
In that one sentence, Cardinal Pell puts his finger on what is wrong with Laudato Si', Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment. In that document, Francis waded into an argument about climate change and took sides. Moreover, he gave the impression that he was speaking for all Catholics when he did so; and, if by any chance he wasn't, errant faithful should fall into line.
In an interview in Thursday's Financial Times, the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy stepped out of line. See above. It was a brave thing to do: Pell's wholesale reform of the Vatican's finances is making him plenty of enemies as it is, and now he's even more vulnerable to attack.
Why take the risk? Because, I suspect, Cardinal Pell considers Laudato Si' to be the most ill-judged encyclical of modern times. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it, it is 'catastrophist' not just in its climate science but also in its attitude towards modern technology in general:
Its catastrophism also leaves this pope more open to empirical criticism. For instance, he doesn’t grapple sufficiently with evidence that the global poor have become steadily less poor under precisely the world system he decries – a reality that has complicated implications for environmentalism.
But let's stick with climate change. We've moved on, thankfully, from the days when climate scepticism was represented by statistically illiterate Right-wing culture warriors opposed by scientific zealots who were happy to hide inconvenient data to make their case. But the science isn't 'settled'; it's just that the debate has become more sophisticated.
Recently I was talking to a libertarian journalist trained in statistics, a rare beast indeed. I asked him about global warming, expecting a denunciation of Lefty alarmism. Instead, he replied: 'I just don't go there – I don't know enough', and poured scorn on amateur commentators of every persuasion.
With Laudato Si', Pope Francis joined the ranks of those amateurs. In addition to embracing the scientific consensus on climate change – and it is a consensus, albeit challenged by credible experts – he proposed a 'new world political authority'. Douthat described this bit of the encyclical as 'drenched in frank contempt for the existing global leadership class'. True, though I suspect this contempt is ultimately directed at the United States: Argentina has always been the most anti-American country in South America.
One dreads to think how this 'new world political authority' would behave, endowed with unlimited powers by corrupt governments and sanctified by papal authority. I can't imagine it giving a moment's consideration to arguments such as the following, from Jim Manzi in National Review:
Fair-minded cost/benefit analyses show that various global carbon-rationing proposals that would reduce economic growth rates in return for lower emissions – whether mechanically structured as a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system or direct regulation – have real-world costs in excess of expected benefits.
You may or may not agree with Manzi. Pope Francis seems scarcely aware that this critique exists. Cardinal Pell, however, certainly is.
But he, too, holds amateur views on climate science. Does that undermine them? Yes – but no more than those of an any other well-informed non-expert taking sides. Here's an extract from a speech he gave in 2011:
Whatever our political masters might decide at this high tide of Western indebtedness, they are increasingly unlikely, because of popular pressure, to impose new financial burdens on their populations in the hope of curbing the rise of global temperatures, except perhaps in Australia, which has 2 per cent of the world's industrial capacity and only 1.2 per cent of its CO2 emissions, while continuing to sell coal and iron worth billions of dollars to Asia.
Extreme weather events are to be expected. This is why I support the views of Bjorn Lomborg and Bob Carter that money should be used to raise living standards and reduce vulnerability to catastrophes.
The cost of attempts to make global warming go away will be very heavy. They may be levied initially on 'the big polluters' but they will eventually trickle down to the end-users. Efforts to offset the effects on the vulnerable are well intentioned but history tells us they can only be partially successful.
Again, you may not agree. But Pell is not the pope and he has not attempted to incorporate a temporary scientific consensus and a grandiose political project into the teaching of the Church. Indeed, if he were pope, I'm certain he wouldn't use the chair of Peter as a platform for his own secular manifesto.
This is what Laudato Si' does. The encyclical is not primarily a secular document: Pell himself says that it 'beautifully' sets out the Christian obligation to protect the environment. But, in fantasising about supra-national climate police, it betrays apparent ignorance of a subject on which the Australian cardinal possess more expertise than his boss – the proper relationship between the eternally valid magisterium of the Church and the always tentative conclusions of scientists.
That is why Cardinal Pell spoke out. And why he was right to do so.