Can churches take a stern line on climate change?

To what extent can criticism from senior clergy on a major policy issue be accommodated?

An earlier post welcomed the Pope’s Encyclical Laudato si’ as a timely intervention in highlighting the moral and ethical issues, and noted that apart from climate change deniers, the document was well-received. Typical of the supportive comments were those of British economist and academic Lord Stern, who said

“Moral leadership on climate change from the Pope is particularly important because of the failure of many heads of state and government around the world to show political leadership. I hope other religious and community leaders will also speak out about how to tackle the two defining challenges of our generation, namely overcoming poverty and managing the risks of climate change. This would encourage greater political leadership in the run-up to the summit in Paris at the end of this year where countries should reach a new international agreement on tackling climate change.”

However, dissent has been expressed in public from senior Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy. In an article in the Financial Times on 16 July which focussed on the financial management of the Vatican, Cardinal Pell, the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, is reported as saying of Laudato si’:

“It’s got many, many interesting elements. There are parts of it which are beautiful … but 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.”

although he did acknowledge that it was “very well received” and the Pope had “beautifully set out our obligations to future generations and our obligations to the environment”. In that context, “reform of the Vatican’s finances — daunting as it is — may be one of its smaller challenges”.

In contrast, the intervention of the Bishop of Chester is specific to the encyclical, and one commentator has described it as “the most comprehensive ecumenical rebuttal to Laudato Si, the second encyclical penned by Pope Francis[1].” With the lay Roman Catholic, Lord Bernard Donoughue, the Rt Rev Dr Forster has jointly issued The Papal Encyclical – A critical Christian response published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, (GWPF). Its introduction states that the document “[seeks] to take forward the arguments of Laudato Si, and to submit them to a degree of friendly analysis” although “[its authors’] thoughts are offered in a personal capacity, and do not represent GWPF as a whole”.


The positions of Cardinal Pell and Dr Forster on climate change are well-known. As Archbishop of Sydney, the Cardinal was as identified in 2009 as a supporter of the Australian Climate Sceptics Party (although not a member of the group) and in 2011 gave the second annual address to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Cardinal Pell’s opposition to climate change has been criticized by climate scientists here, here and elsewhere.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation was launched by Lord Lawson of Blaby and Dr Benny Peiser on 23 November 2009 in the House of Lords, in the run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Lord Lawson is the Chair of the GWPF Board of Trustee; Dr Forster has been a trustee of the GWPF since 2009.

The House of Commons Treasury Committee engineered an interesting confrontation between Lord Lawson and Sir Nicholas Stern, as he then was, when both gave evidence on 6 February 2007 to the Inquiry Climate change and the Stern Review: the implications for Treasury policy, [Ev.22, Ev.32].

Lord Lawson argued: “the Stern Review was ‘basically a work of advocacy’, and that a ‘more objective, analytical approach would have been helpful’, [19]; and claimed “as a good civil servant [Sir Nicholas] was simply doing his master’s bidding”. The Committee, however, concluded, [21]:

“The Stern Review is a serious contribution to the climate change literature. Although Lord Lawson was concerned that Sir Nicholas was insufficiently independent of Government, we believe that the Review has to be judged by the quality of its evidence and the arguments it puts forward, rather than the issue of its authorship.”

Expert analysis?

In 2011, Cardinal Pell made an important observation:

“The basic issue is not whether the science is settled but whether the evidence and explanations are adequate in that paradigm. I fear, too, that many politicians have never investigated the primary evidence. Much is opaque to non-specialists, but persistent inquiry and study can produce useful clarifications … [the] complacent appeal to scientific consensus is simply one more appeal to authority, quite inappropriate in science or philosophy”.

Whilst agreeing that many politicians (and commentators) have never studied the primary evidence, I would add that “useful clarifications” resulting from “persistent inquiry and study” are not always supported by detailed scrutiny, as opponents of Cardinal Pell have outlined, here and elsewhere.

A differing point of view has been expressed by Dr Tim Stephens, Director of the Sydney Centre for International Law, who said “climate science is complex and not explainable in sound-bites. Of necessity the layperson must defer to the experts”, adding that “even if we take at face value Pell’s claim that it is a matter for the layperson to decide himself what the science says, surely as part of that decision-making one ought to consider what the mainstream science has to say, even if only to dismiss it”.

These comments highlight the importance for both churches of in-house expertise with which to assess the developments in this area: not only climate science, but the associated legislation, economics and implementation.


In a commercial organization, it is not uncommon for publicly-expressed dissent against the views of the CEO or Chairperson to result in dismissal or side-lining of the individual concerned. However, such a reaction seems unlikely in the present cases and what is more important is the potential impact of these recent statements on the environmental initiatives of the two churches.

Cardinal Pell’s views on climate change were well-known before his appointment in February 2014 as the first Cardinal-Prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy but after Pope Francis had commenced the preparation of his encyclical on the environment, and so this conflict of views would not come as a complete surprise. The Cardinal’s views, that that climate change issues are of relatively minor relevance in the context of the reorganization of Vatican finances, are reflected in the hesitancy of the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), a.k.a. the Vatican bank to consider divestment in fossil fuels. Max Hohenberg, a spokesman for the Vatican bank, has suggested that the issue was largely irrelevant since “there really isn’t much to divest”; about 95% of the bank’s assets were invested in government bonds, and the rest was invested in stocks held in investment funds. “If you look at divestment and look at the profile of the institute”, he said, “you will come to the conclusion as an objective observer that it really does not have much relevance at the IOR.”

There are arguments both for and against divestment by religious bodies, but without further information on the scale of the IOR’s investments in such projects, it is not possible to comment further. We would note, however, that the Church of England has been acknowledged as being in the forefront of institutional investors and has been active both in its divestment from thermal coal and tar sands and in its corporate engagement with fossil fuel producers in which they remain invested. What is of concern with regard to the Vatican position, however, is Hohenberg’s statement that the bank did not have any social investment policies in place; establishing one meant that it would likely be seen as a “model” within the church, “which is obviously quite a big issue”. A big issue indeed, in more ways then one!

With regard to the Church of England, we have noted earlier that a weakness of the carbon reduction commitment in Shrinking the Footprint is that whilst promoted on a ‘top down’ basis, its delivery is primarily a regional and local issue, as are other improvements in environmental performance. Clearly, if the ordinary is unconvinced that climate change is an issue, he or she will not pursue this part of the environmental agenda with much enthusiasm. A recent survey based upon diocesan web sites and related information[2] suggested that just under half of the dioceses had instituted measures in this area, whereas a small number appeared to have done very little, or had restricted their activities to the ‘soft’ environmental issues. The Chester diocese fell between these two extremes.

Unlike Cardinal Pell, Dr Forster is not part of the Church of England’s national initiative on the environment, and he did not speak in the recent General Synod debate on climate change, (nor refer to the Church’s revised Lambeth Declaration in  the GWPF document). In some respects, therefore, it is not surprising that the Church  has not issued a statement distancing itself from Dr Forster’s views, as it did, for example, in the case of the Revd Stephen Sizer’s comments “9/11 Israel did it” on 29 January 2015 or in relation to its position on same-sex relationships in the context of the Nottingham Employment Tribunal on 17 June 2015. No doubt the speculation on the importance of the statements of Cardinal Pell and Dr Forster will continue, and we will follow developments with interest.

David Pocklington

[1] Laudato si’ was the first encyclical written solely by Pope Francis; Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), dated 29 June 2013 and published 5 July 2013, was begun by Benedict XVI and was almost complete in draft form before he stood down in February 2013.

[2] D N Pocklington, “The role of religion in the development of environmental legislation”, LLM Canon Law Dissertation, Cardiff University, 2012. Table 4.06.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Can churches take a stern line on climate change?" in Law & Religion UK, 22 July 2015,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *