A museum curator here in New York recently showed me some extraordinary documents and I touched them with awe, albeit with cotton gloves. There was Benjamin Franklin’s annotated copy of the Constitution, and a long letter by Washington refusing to run for a second presidential term, because all he had to commend himself was his character, which was no longer of interest to an ungrateful populace that already had reduced politics to material interests. In pencil on a small piece of paper, Lee proposed a meeting with Grant at Appomattox to present his sword.
More riveting, at least to me as a cleric, was a mint copy of the papal bull Inter Caetera by which Pope Alexander VI in 1493 divided the world between Castile and Portugal with a specified meridian. While it was not without effect, its neglect of specific degrees, and obliviousness to the immensity of the globe, led John II of Portugal to shelve it and, in France, Francis mocked it: “Show me Adam’s will.” The pope was Aragonese and, while suspected of prejudice by the Portuguese, was trying his best to establish some order in a world as novel as outer space. Prescinding from the complexities of his personal household, this was the one notorious miscalculation in a pontificate of remarkably successful undertakings in matters religious and not political. In his letter to the Duke of Norfolk, John Henry Newman lists other popes who were mistaken in certain policies: St. Victor, Liberius, Gregory XIII, Paul IV, Sixtus V, and St Peter himself when St. Paul “withstood” him.
Pope Urban VIII and his advisers, in the misunderstood (and sometime deliberately misrepresented) Galileo case, inadequately distinguished the duties of prophecy and politics, and of theological and physical science. St. John Paul II said that “this led them unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith, a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation.” Father Stanley Jaki, a physicist, once cautioned me against using the “Big Bang” as theological evidence for creation. On a loftier level, the physicist Father Georges Lemaître likewise restrained Pope Pius XII from conflating the parallel and complimentary accounts of the universe.
Father Lemaître pioneered the “First Atomic Moment”—contradicting the prevailing thesis of a cosmological constant, or “static infinite” universe. Sir Fred Hoyle mocked it as the “Big Bang” but the term now has lost its condescension. Lemaître told the pope: “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question…. It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.” He also advised friends such as Einstein: “The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses…. As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.” It was like the counsel of Cardinal Baronius later quoted by Galileo: the Scriptures teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
Pope Francis’ encyclical on the ecology of the earth is adventurously laden with promise and peril. It can raise consciousness of humans as stewards of creation. However, there is a double danger in using it as an economic text or scientific thesis. One of the pope’s close advisors, the hortatory Cardinal Maradiaga of Honduras said with ill-tempered diction: “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits.” From the empirical side, to prevent the disdain of more informed scientists generations from now, papal teaching must be safeguarded from attempts to exploit it as an endorsement of one hypothesis over another concerning anthropogenic causes of climate change. It is not incumbent upon a Catholic to believe, like Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, that a pope can perfectly predict the weather. As a layman in these matters, all I know about climate change is that I have to pay for heating a very big church with an unpredictable apparatus. This is God’s house, but he sends me the ConEd utility bills.
It is noteworthy that Pope Francis would have included in an encyclical, instead of lesser teaching forms such as an apostolic constitution or motu proprio, subjects that still pertain to unsettled science (and to speak of a “consensus” allows that there is not yet a defined absolute). The Second Vatican Council, as does Pope Francis, makes clear that there is no claim to infallibility in such teaching. The Council (Lumen Gentium, n.25) does say that even the “ordinary Magisterium” is worthy of a “religious submission of intellect and will” but such condign assent is not clearly defined. It does not help when a prominent university professor of solid Catholic commitments says that in the encyclical “we are about to hear the voice of Peter.” That voice may be better heard when, following the advice of the encyclical (n.55) people turn down their air conditioners. One awaits the official Latin text to learn its neologism for “condizione d’aria.” While the Holy Father has spoken eloquently about the present genocide of Christians in the Middle East, those who calculate priorities would have hoped for an encyclical about this fierce persecution, surpassing that of the emperor Decius. Pictures of martyrs being beheaded, gingerly filed away by the media, give the impression that their last concern on earth was not climate fluctuations.
Saint Peter, from his fishing days, had enough hydrometeorology to know that he could not walk on water. Then the eternal Logos told him to do it, and he did, until he mixed up the sciences of heaven and earth and began to sink. As vicars of that Logos, popes speak infallibly only on faith and morals. They also have the prophetic duty to correct anyone who, for the propagation of their particular interests, imputes virtual infallibility to papal commentary on physical science while ignoring genuinely infallible teaching on contraception, abortion and marriage and the mysteries of the Lord of the Universe. At this moment, we have the paradoxical situation in which an animated, and even frenzied, secular chorus hails papal teaching as infallible, almost as if it could divide the world, provided it does NOT involve faith or morals.
Editor’s note: Pictured above are Pope Gregory XIII and Pope Francis.