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Faith Informing Science: A Catholic Approach to Climate Change

“Understanding is the reward of faith.

Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”

– St. Augustine of Hippo

The scientific data and number of studies concerning climate change are overwhelming. There are climate change deniers and advocates. There are thousands of theories about what’s going wrong (or not) and how to respond to that. How does our Catholic faith fit into all this science and politics?

I’m not going to propose a straight answer to what you should think about climate change or what environmental solution will work best. But I am going to propose what our Catholic faith tells us to prioritize in thinking, understanding, and acting in the environmental sphere. I will explain how placing our moral and interpersonal responsibilities first is not only the correct order under natural law and our faith, but also enables us to most effectively address and solve environmental issues.

At the beginning I want to explain briefly how our society tends to address this issue: we start with the science. Now scientific studies are by no means as simple as scientific method: hypothesis-experiment-conclusion-truth. Philosophy of science exposes how much subjectivity fits into every step of science. What is studied, how the experiment is conducted, what variables are accounted for, what is assumed in the analysis…all these play a major role in the actual outcome of experiments. This inexact ‘objectivity’ of science leads to many of the various theories about the extent and seriousness of climate change. Furthermore, this confusion is exacerbated by lack of distinction between the raw data and the interpretations of that data, especially when data about current events is used to make predictions about the future. Now in the practice of science, making predictions is legitimate. What is not legitimate, however, is presenting the predictions as if they were of the same veracity as the observed current data. I think both sides of the climate debate tend to confuse facts and data with interpretation. We forget how the scientific method works. Theories, such as climate change, are a prediction of the facts we have. It is very possible that the theory is true, but it is not necessarily so. To assert the theories as absolute fact is a fallacy. G.K. Chesterton, in his book Everlasting Man, makes this very clear. He says, “The solar system is a deduction, and doubtless a true deduction; but the point is that it is a very vast and far-reaching deduction and therefore he [the modern scientist] forgets that it is a deduction at all and treats it as a first principle…[;] it is an even more devastating fallacy in connection with theories and other things that are not really ascertained at all”. (Chesterton, 66). We must remember that massive future climate change is a theory, and that to force a theory beyond its abilities is the most unscientific and unreasonable way to take environmental action.

When conducting the interpretation stage of scientific studies on climate change, several more factors external to the scientific method enter the discussion, the biggest factor being ethics. Think of experimental inquiry as the foundation, or starting point, with ethics as the second stage, or second layer of studying climate change. Once we see the data laid before us, what do our ethics tell us about how to respond to this data, to climatic and environmental events?

Now let’s pause a minute. I have just laid out a progression of examining climate change that begins with science and doesn’t get to ethics (or morality or anything related to faith), until the second part of the examination. But remember that St. Augustine quote from the beginning of this post? Faith comes first, then understanding. We must know our beliefs before truly being able to understand such a thing as climate change (or any other scientific topic, for that matter!).

Let us make our Catholic faith the foundation of our examination. What do we believe, and more importantly, how does our belief inform our understanding of science? In this situation, we can look at three things our faith tells us: First, God made all things and is above all things, and our first goal and duty is to draw closer to Him. Second, humans are unique among all creation, particularly in their ability to reason (made in the image of God). And third, God gave humans “dominion” over all the rest of creation.

The first point tells us that all our actions, whether performing science or protecting an endangered species or recycling, should be directed towards God as their final end. If our morality and our actions do not bring us ultimately closer to God, they are either pulling us away or doing nothing. Neither of which help towards our final goal. Thus, if an environmental action plan involves unethical means for mitigating climate change, our faith informs us that this plan is untenable. This is criterion #1 for Catholic environmental action.

The second point tells us two things: one, that only humans are ethical; and two, that human-human ethics are of a higher order than human-environment ethics. Since only humans are ethical, we see that the earth cannot be held responsible for its movements and changes. Thus, if climate change (or some of climate change) is non anthropogenic (human-caused), then we cannot call it a morally bad thing. Without a rationality capable of right and wrong, the earth cannot do good or bad things. It is entirely ethically neutral. Furthermore, this also means that humans cannot and should not be held accountable for non-anthropogenic global events. There is not a transfer of guilt, because there was no guilt in the first place. Thus, if climate change is not anthropogenic, humans do not have a moral responsibility to “do something about it”. We might think our lives will be easier and of a higher quality if we do try to slow global warming down, but that is a course of action of an entirely different moral order than a responsibility to counteract climate change.

As regards the second consequence of the second point, Pope Francis discusses this issue very clearly (see November post on Laudato Si’). In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis states, “There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” (LS 117) Simply, this means that climate change solutions should be focused on human well-being before environmental well-being. The ethical reasons for any proposed action should not benefit nature at the cost of people. The most perfect Garden of Eden would be an absolute disaster if everyone within the garden went around cheating, slandering, and killing each other. This proper ordering of priorities also has a convenient practical consequence. Once we learn how to get along with and work with each other, then our united actions to improve the environment will be much more effective.

Which leads to the third point which our faith tells us about understanding science: human “dominion”. The idea of human dominion comes from the beginning of Genesis, and is the topic of a big controversy; wherein non-Christians claim that dominion means permission for rapacious destruction of the environment, and Christians explain that it means humans have a responsibility of stewardship towards the environment. Again, see the blog post on Laudato Si’ for Pope Francis’ explanation of Catholic stewardship (LS 116). Now, in one sense this stewardship gives meaning and importance to science. Through science, people strive to discover God’s creation so that we can make well informed “management decisions”. In another sense, this tells all people, not just scientists, that we do have a moral responsibility (albeit of a lower hierarchical order than human-human responsibilities) towards the well-being of the creation over which we have been given stewardship. And as with every steward, we must give an accounting one day for that creation, as far as it was in our power to assist its well-being.

Once we have straight these three main points, we can always dive deeper into the weeds of particular environmental ethical issues. With the proper hierarchy, we can answer questions such as what climate concerns have higher priority. We know that the answer to that is “those which directly affect human well-being”. We can also answer questions about different possible solutions to climate problems. If the solutions involve 1: non-virtuous means to achieve a virtuous end, and/or 2: human harm for the sake of environmental benefit, then those solutions are not ethically viable for Catholics. In addition we can all have the same attitude towards the earth: it is not a god to be worshipped and communed with, nor a being equal to and as sentient as humans. Rather the earth is a beautiful work of God’s creativity, given to us as our home and our responsibility.

In conclusion, even if you disagree with your Catholic neighbor about the veracity of the manifold climate studies, reports, and theories, we can all engage with our faith and common belief in order to have civil and productive discussion and action in caring for our God’s gorgeous work of art: Creation.

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