During his brief tenure, His Holiness Pope Francis has won a great deal of admiration and respect from Catholics and non-Catholics alike – and deservedly so. He has been fearlessly outspoken on the issues of poverty, inequality, predatory capitalism, warfare and prejudice. He is the first Pope in history to actively reach in friendship out to leaders of other faiths, including Judaism and Islam. He even acknowledges and blesses the non-believers. According to some accounts, the Argentine-born Pontiff also danced a mean tango in his salad days.

And as a Jesuit, he knows something about science. The Order of the Society of Jesus has produced a large number of prominent scientific minds over the centuries. Pope Francis himself has a background in chemistry, having trained as a Chemical Technician as a young man. To Jesuits, there is no contradiction between science and faith.  Br. Guy Consolmago, an American-born research astronomer working at the Vatican, once told the Canadian media that “science is like…playing a puzzle with God…[He] sets the puzzles, and after I solve one, I can hear Him cheering, ‘Great! That was wonderful, now here’s the next one.’”

Climate science and chemistry are only tangentially related, but understanding of them requires the same scientific mindset and insights. When His Holiness says that climate change is a real threat, you can bet that he knows what he’s talking about.

Not surprisingly, conservative elements in the U.S. government and corporate media beg to differ, scientific evidence notwithstanding. Typically, these people are saying that the Pope should stick to matters of faith and “leave science to the scientists.” Wait…isn’t Pope Francis a scientist? And for Roman Catholics, isn’t the Holy Father supposed to be infallible?

One can understand why a dour Presbyterian like Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma might take issue with the leader of the Catholic Church and his views. But ironically, many of the Pope’s biggest critics and detractors are self-proclaimed Catholics themselves, most of whom claim to be devout. Case in point: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. According to a 2013 article in Christianity Today, Santorum considers himself a devout Roman Catholic. He and his wife attend Mass on a daily basis, and he considers his faith to be the basis of his political and social beliefs. One even suspects he’d like to see a return to the Middle Ages when the Pope reigned supreme over secular kings; he has publicly stated that he doesn’t believe in “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Given such strong religious convictions, why does Santorum tell the spiritual leader of his church to stop talking about climate change and  “leave science to the scientists”? Particularly when this spiritual leader, with his scientific experience and background, states that protection of the environment is “moral imperative” and a “sacred duty”?

On a recent edition of Fox “News,” he told Chris Wallace that: “We have to make public policy with regard to the environmental policy . . . . Whether we like it or not, people in government have to make decisions with respect to our public policy that affect American workers.”

Really, Rick?

It’s no secret that Santorum, like his fellow neo-cons of all stripes, is in bed with the fossil fuel industry. He is on record with talk show host Glenn Beck on this issue: “Drill everywhere…We have huge stores. 263 years of oil…almost 200 years of gas, and 300 years of coal.”

Assuming Santorum’s figures are correct, he either misses the point or is deliberately disregarding the evidence that emissions from these energy sources are slowly burning up the planet. It’s hard to know exactly what he’s thinking, though it’s a good bet that, like former Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, he’s counting on Jesus to return to earth and remake the world.  Watt publicly said: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” but in the meantime, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.”

It is significant that the present Pope took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of nature the environment.  In a day and age when men and women in power, whose only gods are Mammon and the Golden Calf, are hell-bound and determined to wring every ounce of life out of the planet for short-term profits, the environment needs equally powerful advocates.




K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.