The Pope is Right: Creation Care Needs Both Scripture and Science | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1

Note: Today’s post concludes a series of responses to last week’s groundbreaking encyclical by Pope Francis. The previous posts (including a reponse from world-famous Christian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe) can be found on the sidebar.

Last week, Pope Francis released a papal encyclical on the subject of climate change and the Christian moral responsibility to care for “our common home.” The Pope has decided to use his considerable moral authority and public presence to engage the question of what to do about the effects of rising temperatures around the globe (and, to a lesser extent, what or who is responsible for them). An encyclical is the second-most authoritative pronouncement the Pope can make, and coupled with his existing popularity, it’s no surprise that his thoughts on one of today’s most polarizing issues made headlines around the globe. While many BioLogos leaders are from the evangelical Protestant world, our community is broad and includes a number of Catholics. We respect the Pope as an important and influential voice in the church, so when he speaks about a scientific issue, we pay attention both to his message and the response to it—even if it is not our particular issue.

In 2009, BioLogos was founded by Francis Collins and others with a specific purpose: to help people understand the scientific evidence for evolution and how it need not undermine faith in Christ or the authority of the Bible. Thus, environmental issues are outside of our immediate focus and expertise, and BioLogos does not include anything about this in our official belief statements. There are other Christian organizations and their affiliated scientists who provide excellent information and guidance on this topic, and we gladly point people to them (see below).

However, we cannot pretend there is no connection between the two issues. Evangelical Christians are among those with the highest rates of doubting the scientific consensus about both evolution and human-induced climate change. Very few people are working directly with the empirical evidence for either of these, so most of us have to rely on the expertise of others in drawing our conclusions. And it is natural for anyone to doubt conclusions that we perceive to be in conflict with our faith. This is a constant issue in discussion of creation and evolution, when evidence from God’s world prompts us to reconsider how we interpret God’s Word.

The issue with climate change has a different dimension, though. It’s not that the science itself is in dispute. There is no real debate that the overall temperature of the globe is increasing, and there is no debate at all that the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased. The question is whether there is more than a correlation between these two data sets. Have human activities caused the increase in greenhouse gases? Almost certainly, the answer to that question is yes. From burning coal and oil to dramatic increases in beef consumption (cow manure is one of the leading sources of methane emissions), our lifestyle has changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere. So we must ask whether this has caused the global warming (and its attendant increase in severe weather and sea levels) we’ve observed? The overwhelming scientific consensus is that it has.

Does believing that we have caused climate change affect our theology? Perhaps for some. There is the infamous remark made by Mark Driscoll at a large conference, “I know who made the environment. He’s coming back, and he’s going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” Some people may think such sentiments are consistent with Christian theology, but that is very difficult to defend from Scripture. Instead, Scripture is clear that we are to be stewards of the earth and its resources (see this blog post or this series)

So, if human-induced climate change does not challenge our theological commitments, why is there such resistance from Christians in accepting it? I’d suggest it is because it challenges something even more dear to many in the West: our lifestyles. This cuts deeply into all of us. The Pope’s message is clear that we in the West bear responsibility for the effects of our consumer lifestyles, and those effects are primarily felt among the world’s poorest people. The way we live could not be extended to the rest of the population without even more drastic effects than are already beginning to show. Most of us, though, are isolated from such effects. Pope Francis writes that the majority of us in the West live comfortable lives,

“far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems…This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality…Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (§49).

It is obvious that climate change is not just an academic discussion about the merits of the scientific evidence. Economics, justice, and political allegiances are woven into responses. A couple of weeks ago in anticipation of the release of the encyclical, presidential candidate Rick Santorum (himself a Catholic) urged the Pope to leave “science to the scientists and [focus] on what we’re really good at, which is… theology and morality.” As far as I can tell, that is exactly what the Pope has done: he has accepted the conclusion of the vast majority of scientists and drawn out its moral and theological implications.

The encyclical demonstrates the need for serious integration of religious perspectives into scientific discussions. Science has done wonderfully at providing natural explanations for what we observe, and it shows us the possibilities of what we can do in manipulating the resources around us. But science alone cannot tell us what we ought to do. We confronted this issue in WWII with the use of atomic bombs, and much more recently with the emerging controversy over genetic editing of human embryos. As Fr. Austriaco wrote yesterday, science does not provide the moral compass we need.

There are huge stakes for what we do about climate change, and our future actions (or inactions) will be guided by something more than scientific evidence. So Christians ought to be at the forefront of these conversations and leading by moral example, adopting lifestyles that are sustainable for all people on the planet, and following the teachings of Jesus by caring for the “least of these”.

The Earth is not a “secular” place. We Christians see all of nature as God’s creation, and as such it is imbued with value and loved by God. Scientists who discover the details of how this created order works—whether they are Christians or not—are revealing the inner workings of God’s handiwork. Such work should be valued by all of us and deemed to be a holy vocation. We applaud Pope Francis for rejecting the dichotomy between “secular” and “spiritual” on this topic, because good science and vibrant faith are natural partners—both on this topic and every other.

Further resources:

No matter how the world responds to the evidence about our changing climate, billions of lives will be affected. Pope Francis is right that it is absolutely critical for Christians to be well-educated on the scientific evidence so that we can advocate for well-informed action to care for God’s earth and God’s creatures. The good news is that there are already competent Christian guides to help us navigate the evidence. Foremost on this list is the author of Friday’s post , Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, who is one of the world’s leading climate scientists (in addition to being an evangelical Christian). Her book, A Climate for Change, is recommended without reservation by BioLogos. In addition, Jonathan Merritt’s book Green Like God is a great resource on the biblical case for Creation care. The Christian organization A Rocha is one of the world’s leading faith-based voices about environmental issues, and we’re happy to recommend them as well.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #3

One thing that I would like point out is that there is no clear link between evolutionary science and ecology. I would argue that part of our ecological problem is caused by science vigorously defending Darwinism, which ignores the issue of climate change, and denies the fact that nature is rationally structured, instead of seeking to bring the two together to solve the ecological disaster that we all face.

For many evolution has become an ideology, rather than a science, and it is an ideology which does not encourage ecological thinking. For many being for or against evolution has become a substitute for real world activity to save the planet.

If the new encyclical changes this, it will be a great service to all.

(Larry Bunce) #5

In one of his books about traven’t existl in Europe, Mark Twain mentioned that in the Black Forest, farmers measured their success by the size of the manure pile in their front yard. When he asked if it might be more pleasant to have the manure elsewhere, they replied that no one would know how rich they were. At least the farmers lived with the consequences of their wealth.
We seem to take pride in the manure pile we have built, but dump it on our neighbors in the third world and pretend it doesn’t exist.

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #6

As a physicist with published paper and having sat on review boards, I strongly disagree with the conclusions expressed in the above quote. The science is NOT settled, in the following sense. CO2 reradiates in the IR due to a low-frequency bending vibration–that’s settled. So does H2O, and there’s much more H2O in the atmosphere than CO2. So-called “feedback” effects to negate the overwhelming effect of H2O are not accepted or are questioned by many scientists. The consensus is NOT overwhelming that human activity has caused an increase in climate temperature. Indeed accurate (atmospheric and stratospheric measurements) have not shown a significant increase in the last 10 years. The temperature station data has been so fudged and manipulated that one can’t trust them. Do a Google search on “fudged temperature station measurements” and you’ll see many entries.

Rather than relying on advice from a pantheistic scientist who holds to a Gaia belief, His Holiness should have used a Devil’s Advocate to give the skeptic’s position and so perhaps have reached a balanced viewpoint. I’ll quote from my comment to another post on this blog:

There is much to praise in the Encyclical, …However, the Encyclical is spoiled for me by a stain of false science. Like some absent-minded scientists I occasionally put an uncapped pen into my shirt pocket. The resultant stain, even though it is small, ruins the shirt beyond repair. The stain in the Encyclical is the bllind acceptance and assertion of settled science of claims concerning AGW (Anthropic Global Warming)–polar ice caps and glaciers melting, sea levels rising, etc
There is a general question of when the Church should meddle in science. I’ve discussed this at some length in a post on my blog, "Galileo redux: When should the Church meddle in science?"2 and will state here that I admire the position by Pope Saint John Paul II, The Church has a duty to take a stand on applications and philosophical interpretations of settled science when it affects moral questions, but should not repeat the mistake made in Galileo’s trial of accepting a “consensus” view of what science says."

Here is a good resource for the non-politically biased science dealing with this subject:
Climate Change–The Facts.

(GJDS) #7


I agree that scientists must be able to separate settled science from speculation and unfortunately politics and prospects for career advancements can often muddy the “scientific water” and lead to lopsided views. However I am also impressed by the data on atmospheric concentrations of CO2, CH4, NOx, SOx, fluoro-compounds, just to name a few pollutants, and that these increases are, due to various activities, more often man made, as indicated by plots of the concentrations vs the last hundred years.

I am interested in your opinion on such data. For example, are you disputing the accuracy of the measurements? or do you feel the interpretation is faulty?

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #8

@GJDS … Let’s see, I stopped beating my wife about 10 years ago…oh, no, that wasn’t the question you asked. I am concerned primarily, as my post should make clear with the false assertions about AGW.

With respect to other pollutants I am concerned about interpretations of harmful effects, but that is irrelevant to the point of my post. As an example, fluorocarbons are one of the most inert organic compounds in use. A German chemist posited that solar radiation in the stratosphere would create free radicals which would destroy the ozone layer. This hypothesis neglects the Boltzmann distribution law for atmospheres which gives an inverse exponential distribution by molecular mass. Fluorocarbons being very heavy, the concentration in the upper atmosphere and stratosphere is essentially zero. True, turbulence will modify this somewhat up to about 5 to 10 miles, but not sufficiently high to affect the ozone layer.

There is a current effort by the EPA to ban inhalers, even though no harmful environmental effect of these has been demonstrated. This would really harm my wife, who uses inhalers for asthma, since she would choke on the proposed powder inhalers.

Here’s another example. About 15 years ago the harmful effects of extremely low frequency electromagnetic radiation (ELF) were being touted as the newest scare. A fellow physicist and I calculated the effects of walking through the earth’s magnetic field and showed it was equivalent to being within 10 cm of a wire carrying current to a 100 watt load, 60 cycles, 110 volts. We presented the results in a letter to the Sierra Club publication (which had published a scare article about ELF), but they refused to publish it.

I am all for mitigating the effects of atmospheric pollutants which have been truly shown to be harmful, but I am very skeptical about whether environmentalists and government agencies have the scientific knowledge and balanced judgment to carry out such policies.

I recommend a paper by Montford, “The Unintended Consequences of Climate Change Policy”, that shows how the Third World poor are harmed by such policies as use of corn for ethanol and other policies intended to mitigate AGW.

(GJDS) #9


Somehow I feel certain your wife is ok, and I trust she will be able to use helpful medication; I am very aware of the need to help asthma sufferers. I guess we can trade various experiences - I am a research chemist and I can tell you of so-called scientists and engineers (and management) who happily spent millions of dollars developing technology that produced extremely toxic liquids waste (and also mutagenic) AND products that were useless - we predicted this, demonstrated it, and yet to no avail - once the money was spent, lo and behold standard toxicology tests were then carried out and sure enough, the results were unambiguous - the stuff was as poisonous as I predicted.

I guess some people may still argue about lead, acid rain, and smog in cities choking people - but I think we should accept what is obvious regarding pollution of our planet. I am somewhat surprised by your comments regarding the ozone layer - are you suggesting it has not been depleted?

I think we can both agree that political activity is rarely helpful in mitigating and reducing pollutants, and I am vocal in the way the developed world treats the problems that impact on the underdeveloped and poor nations. However how else can these problems be addressed, unless scientists take a serious view and work towards providing solutions?

(GJDS) #10


I am getting forgetful - on the debate regarding global warming and Greenhouse gases, my question was directed to a specific area, that is the measurements of the concentrations of GHGs and the increases reported over the last 100 years or so (industrial period). Your response did not make a clear comment on this data, and I would be interested in a response from you on this.

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #11

I appreciate your concern over toxic products, particularly if you have been involved in the past. I don’t believe I can offer any expertise on the abundance and toxicity of pollutants, since I am primarily a physicist who has been involved in biophysical and biomedical applications of magnetic resonance. I have read that the ozone layer depletion, and its causes is controversial, but I do feel that chlorofluorocarbons–looking at the physics–are not a significant contributor. I do maintain that the Greens do not delve into the science sufficiently and balance good vs evil effects, and I assert that this has been shown by measures taken to lessen “the carbon footprint”.
I believe there are ways of mitigating pollution by use of clean, practical energy sources: fission, fusion, solar (when it is not subsidized by government handouts).
There are also ways, demonstrated to be effective of minimizing pollution from fossil fuels. However, even if we do carry out reasonable and effective controls for pollution from fossil fuel use in this country, we have no control over what is done in other countries, China in particular.
In sum, at this stage in my life I’m going to leave the investigation of atmospheric pollutants, qua pollutants (not warming agents) to people such as you who are more knowledgeable and interested in the subject.


Thiis encyclic si not only on climate change. Climate change is already not clear, many people do not agree with that. I think that a good focalization on problems discussed in the encyclic is the point of view of Vinciguerra, one of the encyclic writer in Vatican city

F Clemente MD, PhD

(Terry M. Gray) #13


Thanks for running this discussion of #LaudatoSi during this past week. I fully support at least four aspects of Pope Francis’s encyclical: 1) the Christian and Biblical teaching on environmental stewardship and Creation care; 2) the attention given to the problems of CO2 emissions, global warming, and climate change; 3) the call to care for the poor and to seek justice and equity; and 4) the warning about wasteful consumerism. As a Christian it seems hard to disagree with respect to three of these, and as a scientist, it seems hard to disagree on the science of climate change.

That being said, there are things I must take issue with concerning the social, political, and economic direction given. For example, how does one best help the poor? Spiritual issues aside, the poor need access to clean/safe water, adequate food, clean air indoors and outdoors, shelter from inhospitable weather and other environmental dangers, sanitary waste disposal, adequate health care, and opportunity to use their skills and labor to take care of themselves and their children and, perhaps, to make a better life. These are the very things that we all need.

In today’s world these things come via development and access to clean, abundant, and reliable energy–primarily electricity. Unusable water can be made usable with appropriate water purification technologies. Lighting extends the work day and facilitates education and business opportunity. Electric or gas stoves bring clean air and time savings. Heat from those clean energy sources can bring protection from cold climates. Pumps can bring water from deep underground or from far away places where there is fresh water in abundance. Electricity brings access to the digital age and the commerce and opportunity it can bring.

Whatever you may thing of @AlexEpstein and his Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, he has the history and the present situation right. Where there is access to clean, abundant, and reliable energy we are able to provide these basic things–clean air, clean water, shelter and comfort from inhospitable climate, light, electricity to bring refrigeration and time saving devices such as clothes washing machines, electricity to operate life saving medical clinics and hospitals, etc. (I disagree with Epstein about climate change and the future of renewable energy, but I think his case for clean, abundant, and reliable energy is sound.)

I hope no one calls these things extravagant, wasteful consumerism. Certainly, we can be wasteful (leaving lights on, running water unnecessarily, having our thermostats set too low in the summer or too high in the winter, washing small loads of laundry, etc.). But these are basic provisions that we don’t want to give up and that we want everyone else in the world to have. Many people are working toward the electrification of the majority world, for example. See @HansRosling for progress on various fronts.

The problem, of course, is that currently the energy to provide these basics comes from fossil fuel burning which leads to CO2 emissions. But perhaps the benefits that come from development and energy that enable the ability to mitigate the consequences of climate change (sea walls, draining low lying population centers, transporting fresh water, desalination, etc.) are the better way to help the poor (assuming we have to choose).

Better yet is developing new reliable energy sources–solar, wind, geothermal, next generation nuclear–or using some our energy to clean up our fossil fuel use (CCS and other carbon capture technologies). Here we leapfrog over the fossil fuel age that brought us development and the amenities of our modern high energy world. Development allows us to clean up messes that we have already made and to put resources into re-wilding areas of the planet that have succumbed to human transformation.

Some decry the impossibility of bringing the 75% majority to the level of development of the developed world. But it’s already happening (e.g. China, India, Brasil and other emerging economies). And most of us want to see this happen. It seems possible that this could happen by “merely” doubling current global energy use.

Please allow me to commend @ecomodernism. See for the Ecomodernist Manifesto. They are a group of environmentalists that advocate the further decoupling of human culture and technology from nature in the interest of protecting and reclaiming nature. They advocate nuclear energy and further development of renewable energies to provide clean, reliable, and abundant energy to replace fossil fuel burning. (See the documentary Pandora’s Promise for some of their ideas on energy and the potential for safe nuclear energy.) See also my own energy primer at

Finally, a bit tongue-in-cheek, but somewhat serious, I wonder if we really want to follow the Pope’s suggestions. The upcoming Evolution and Christian Faith conference will have an enormous carbon footprint. Many will have emitted tons of CO2 to get to Grand Rapids. No doubt the hotels and conference center will have the AC on to the point where we have been advised to bring warmer clothing for the indoor meeting. Will there be any food wasted? All this resource use for what? To discuss esoteric matters of faith and science? Would the Pope say we are being wasteful consumerists in the world of ideas?

The steward who merely buried his given talent was chastised and thrown into the outer darkness.

(system) #14

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