[Austen Ivereigh] Because financial reports are not, generally, newsworthy, it was inevitable that Cardinal George Pell’s brief remarks on Pope Francis’s ecology encyclical last week in an interview on Vatican finances should have dominated headlines, many of which are claiming that he has “attacked” Laudato Si’.
The interview (behind a paywall) with the Financial Times, ‘Reformer tries to bring light to closed world of Vatican finance’ was a profile of the 74-year Australian cardinal’s efforts to overhaul a tradition of closely-guarded autonomy in Roman dicasteries, opening them to international standards of transparency.
Cardinal Pell speaks about the progress made in another interview with John Allen at Crux, on the occasion of the release of the first ever audited statement of Vatican accounts based on recognised International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) last Thursday (see press release here.)
The statement shows the Vatican still running a deficit of 25.6m euros, though smaller than in 2013, and making progress towards far greater accountability and transparency, although with some way still to go. Cardinal Pell makes clear in both the FT and Allen interviews that his aim is to make the Vatican profitable through spending squeezes and sweating the Vatican assets, while implementing International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS), something that normally takes three to five years. “Our model is the Swiss government, which puts out an extremely comprehensive annual financial report”, Danny Casey, Pell’s chief of staff, tells Crux.
In both interviews, Pell acknowledges pushback from some Vatican departments, while claiming that there is far more cooperation because of the involvement of the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
But what has created the headlines were his remarks in the FT about Laudato Si’. The FT describes Cardinal Pell as “distancing himself” from Pope Francis’s groundbreaking encyclical by making clear that “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.”
But the FT also quotes him as saying that the encyclical has many interesting elements and beautiful parts, that it was “very well received” and “beautifully set out our obligations to future generations and our obligations to the environment”.
This is hardly criticism of the encyclical. Cardinal Pell merely expresses caution about the idea of canonizing a scientific opinion. The cardinal has in the past expressed scepticism about the scientific evidence of climate change, and is doing so again.
But it is quite absurd to claim that these remarks constitute some kind of challenge to Pope Francis, as Damian Thompson attempts to do so in a Spectator blog.
Sounding curiously like a liberal Catholic praising a dissident theologian in favour of female ordination under Pope St John Paul II, Thompson claims that Pope Francis has attempted to impose the scientific consensus of climate change as a kind of dogmatic truth, demanding that “errant faithful should fall into line”. Later he tries again, asserting that Francis has sought to incorporate “a temporary scientific consensus and a grandiose political project into the teaching of the Church.” Having set up this absurd premise, he then tries to portray Cardinal Pell as bravely stepping out of line in a conscience-driven protest.
But of course Laudato Si’ makes no attempt whatsoever to confuse the Magisterium of the Church with the science of climate change. It simply acknowledges the consensus, while citing its own observation of destruction to the planet — an observation underlined by reports from bishops in poor countries.
Laudato Si’ makes a moral and biblical case for caring for the planet, not a scientific one (in which, as Cardinal Pell points out, the Church has no expertise). The prophetic urgency of the encyclical is drawn from the Pope’s own discernment of the impact of the current consumerist model on the poor and on the planet. That impact is supported by the science — a fact which is not just significant in itself, but important when addressing the whole of humanity, not just those who read the Bible and see God filling the universe.
Cardinal Pell is a climate change sceptic. He has looked at the science, and is not convinced — or rather, he prefers the evidence of a minority of scientists who question the data. Is he in disagreement, implicitly or explicitly, with Laudato Si’? Of course not: the encyclical sets out our obligations to the planet, and Cardinal Pell salutes them. Thompson’s attempt to turn Cardinal Pell into a martyr for free speech collapses at the first furlong.
Is any Catholic free to disagree with the scientific consensus supporting climate change, which is acknowledged in the encyclical? Of course. The encyclical recognizes that consensus; it does not canonize it. What a Catholic cannot do — at least without putting him or herself in disagreement with the authority of papal teaching — is be indifferent to the call for conversion called for by Pope Francis, using climate change skepticism as an excuse. Laudato Si’ is critical of those who use science to justify inaction, not those who disagree with some of the interpretations of the data.
To use an analogy from history, there were many Catholics who in 1891 did not recognize Leo XIII’s shocking diagnosis of the state of the working class, and its exploitation by a small capitalist class. They accused him of communism, just as now Pope Francis’s US critics accuse him of socialism. But in both cases the popes were pointing to a situation of injustice and wrong and calling for it to be put right. Rerum Novarum no more implied a socialist state than does Laudato Si’.
Still, Cardinal Pell’s substantial concern is that some might say it does. He is worried that Pope Francis’s critiques of the idolatry of the market and of money will be exploited — as, say, Evo Morales did in Bolivia — to support a socialist or interventionist alternative. He tells Crux:
The market is far from perfect … it’s an imperfect instrument. All you have to do is look at debt levels in many countries to see that. By the same token, however, we’ve also seen historically unprecedented levels of prosperity achieved because of the global spread of capitalism and freer markets. Growth in China and India, for instance, is real and wonderful. Also, we shouldn’t take our prosperity in the “First World” for granted. Right now Greece and Portugal may be in trouble, but overall we have a good standard of living, and we shouldn’t forget that.
Cardinal Pell is not disagreeing with the economic diagnosis of Laudato Si’. He is pointing to the fruits of the market, warning against throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and suggesting that Pope Francis’s view of the market has been conditioned by the South American experience of capitalism, and that it’s not the whole story.
Who has the truer view of the market and its effects, and whether Cardinal Pell needed to point that out, is a matter for debate. What is not in doubt is the call of Laudato Si’ to conversion to care for the environment — something the Vatican’s chief money man clearly backs, whatever the spin some have tried to put on his remarks.