New Study: Pope Francis' Climate Change Letter Hurt His Credibility

The report's authors argued that "these results suggest that the worldviews, political identities, and group norms that lead conservative Catholics to deny climate change override their deference to religious authority when judging the reality and risks of this phenomenon."

This gives the findings an unfair slant, however. Pope Francis' letter, while it was addressed to all Catholics, was not ex cathedra, and so is not considered infallible according to Catholic doctrine. Honest Catholics can disagree with encyclicals without damaging their standing in the Catholic Church. Suggesting otherwise is unfair to the millions of conservative Catholics who doubt the alarmist view of climate change.

Catholics only consider the pope to be infallible in virtue of his office when "he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals," according to the Second Vatican Council. Such a decision must meet three conditions: it must be universal, it must be on a matter of faith and morals, and it must define a doctrine by an absolute decision — teach a truth that must be accepted by all the faithful.

Naturally, Protestants and other non-Catholics are not required to believe such infallibility, but Catholics themselves are required to do so. In other words, if Catholics disagreed with Pope Francis on climate change, they were not "overriding their deference" to religious authority, because climate change is not a matter of faith and morals and because "Laudato Si" is not ex cathedra.

While conservative Catholics may downgrade Pope Francis' credibility as a public figure, they would not disagree with any ex cathedra statements Francis might make in the future. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it is an important distinction, as any faithful Catholic knows.

Furthermore, conservative Catholics were in good company in responding negatively to the encyclical.

When "Laudato Si" came out, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (a practicing Catholic) attacked it, saying, "I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope." Florida Senator Marco Rubio agreed, adding, "I find it ironic that a lot of the same liberals who are touting the encyclical on climate change ignore multiple pronouncements of this pope on the definition of marriage and the sanctity of life."

If liberals are so interested in being good Catholics and respecting Pope Francis' authority on public policy, perhaps they should rethink positions on gay marriage and abortion. Then maybe vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, who is still a practicing Catholic, might sound a little bit more like his rival Mike Pence, who left the Catholic Church for evangelical Protestantism. Wouldn't that be ironic?