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ENCYCLICAL/ Cardinal Pell backs Laudato Si’ (but you may not guess it from the headlines)

In his remarks about Laudato Si’, Cardinal Pell merely expresses caution about the idea of canonizing a scientific opinion but without criticism of the encyclical. By AUSTEN IVEREIGH

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Because financial reports are not, generally, newsworthy, it was inevitable that Cardinal George Pell’s brief remarks on Pope Francis’s ecology encyclical last week in an interview on Vatican finances should have dominated headlines, many of which are claiming that he has “attacked” Laudato Si’.

The interview (behind a paywall) with the Financial Times, ‘Reformer tries to bring light to closed world of Vatican finance’ was a profile of the 74-year Australian cardinal’s efforts to overhaul a tradition of closely-guarded autonomy in Roman dicasteries, opening them to international standards of transparency.

Cardinal Pell speaks about the progress made in another interview with John Allen at Crux, on the occasion of the release of the first ever audited statement of Vatican accounts based on recognised International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) last Thursday (July 16 -ed.) (see press release here

The statement shows the Vatican still running a deficit of 25.6m euros, though smaller than in 2013, and making progress towards far greater accountability and transparency, although with some way still to go. Cardinal Pell makes clear in both the FT and Allen interviews that his aim is to make the Vatican profitable through spending squeezes and sweating the Vatican assets, while implementing International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS), something that normally takes three to five years. “Our model is the Swiss government, which puts out an extremely comprehensive annual financial report”, Danny Casey, Pell’s chief of staff, tells Crux.

In both interviews, Pell acknowledges pushback from some Vatican departments, while claiming that there is far more cooperation because of the involvement of the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

But what has created the headlines were his remarks in the FT about Laudato Si’. The FT describes Cardinal Pell as “distancing himself” from Pope Francis’s groundbreaking encyclical by making clear that “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.

But the FT also quotes him as saying that the encyclical has many interesting elements and beautiful parts, that it was “very well received” and “beautifully set out our obligations to future generations and our obligations to the environment”.

This is hardly criticism of the encyclical. Cardinal Pell merely expresses caution about the idea of canonizing a scientific opinion. The cardinal has in the past expressed scepticism about the scientific evidence of climate change, and is doing so again.

But it is quite absurd to claim that these remarks constitute some kind of challenge to Pope Francis, as Damian Thompson attempts to do so in a Spectator blog. Sounding curiously like a liberal Catholic praising a dissident theologian in favour of female ordination under Pope St John Paul II, Thompson claims that Pope Francis has attempted to impose the scientific consensus of climate change as a kind of dogmatic truth, demanding that “errant faithful should fall into line”.

Later he tries again, asserting that Francis has sought to incorporate “a temporary scientific consensus and a grandiose political project into the teaching of the Church.”

Having set up this absurd premise, he then tries to portray Cardinal Pell as  bravely stepping out of line in a conscience-driven protest.