Decoding the science agenda of the liberal Pope and his conservative flock

Pope Francis and Leonardo DiCaprio [Image Courtesy: Catholic Herald]
When the Academy Award winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio used his 2016 award acceptance speech to say that “climate change is real“, his stand was celebrated by the liberal media. But it may not come as a huge surprise considering that Hollywood A-listers like DiCaprio are generally liberal and have championed the cause of the marginalized – both people and planet. However, when another “celebrity” on (shall we say) the other end of the political spectrum, made a similar advocacy attempt by writing a letter – it created global fanfare among the climate change mitigation advocates.

Pope Francis’ papal encyclical Laudato Si was released in June 2015. Having the subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home”, the encyclical urged the global community (not just members of the Catholic Church) to act on an urgent basis and tackle the problem of climate change. Laudato Si is not the first papal document to address issues concerning earth and the environment. But it was perhaps the first attempt to increase action among “conservatives in general and Catholic conservatives in particular”.

Cognition, an international, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to “theoretical and experimental papers on the study of the mind” published an interesting paper on how the credibility of Pope Francis played out in the minds of Catholics and non-Catholics (in USA) depending on the awareness of his encyclical and their prior values and beliefs on climate change. The authors of the article, Asheley R. Landrum and others, concluded “that the encyclical did not directly influence people’s beliefs about the seriousness of climate change or its effect on the poor. The papal message did, however, indirectly influence people’s beliefs about climate change by raising the Pope’s credibility on that issue, most strongly among liberals”.

Additionally, there was also a small evidence of a “Francis effect“, that is, “non-Catholics who were aware of the encyclical gave the Pope more credibility on climate change as a moral issue affecting the poor than non-Catholics who weren’t aware of it.”

More importantly, the international scientific community saw the encyclical as a genuine effort of a socially-conservative religious institution to address larger issues, albeit using a moral framework. More recently, Nature journal pointed out that the encyclical is not an isolated event in Pope Francis’ broader engagement with science.

Francis is the first Pope to reach out to the scientific community working with patients of Huntington’s disease, a hereditary and neuro-degenerative disorder. People with this particular health condition (which can affect several generations in a family) have been generally socially isolated because of the symptoms of the disorder – involuntary jerky movements, depression and/or aggression. Considering that advocates of the eugenics movement in 20th century America suggested the sterilization of people with Huntington’s disease, scientists today have welcomed the Pope’s meeting with patients from 23 different countries and his efforts to remove stigma associated with the disorder.

The Pope’s actions are encouraging and may have been welcomed by scientists. Yet, research on Huntington’s disease raises larger moral issues – such as the use of CRISPR to edit genes of human embryos. It is well known that the Catholic Church (and Pope Francis) believe in the sanctity of the human embryo and would never approve the use of human embryos in research.

So does Pope Francis and Laudato Si really reflect a genuine openness of the Catholic Church towards science? Scientists (believers and non-believers) often speak of a “chasm between science and religion that cannot be bridged”. But recent actions of Pope Francis have been discussed and debated in scientific journals, small evidence that his words have not only knocked on the closed minds of conservatives but urged further dialogue with the liberals – atleast moving one step towards the chasm if not bridging the chasm.

In May 2017, Pope Francis gifted Laudato Si to the American President Donald Trump. It has been reported that Trump promised to read it. Two weeks later, Trump signed out of the Paris climate agreement of 2015. Maybe the Pope needs to try a bit harder!



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