The view from Billinudgel

Render unto Caesar
The Pope’s encyclical raises questions that Tony Abbott can’t dodge forever

The Pope’s encyclical on climate change has produced the predictable shruggings-off and dismissals from the conservatives, even among his most devout supporters.

It was not an ex cathedra pronouncement, and so can be ignored without any risk of eternal damnation or even penance. And, while the old bloke may well have his heart in the right place, what does he know anyway? He is a Pope, a theologian, not a climate scientist. Clearly unqualified to  talk about the subject.

And it’s true; he is unqualified, just like Lord Christopher Monckton, Maurice Newman, Andrew Bolt and the the range of ranters, denialists and sceptics who regularly infest the media with their conspiracy theories.

But the Pope is also unqualified in many fields, such as gay marriage or any other sort of marriage for that matter, women, abortion, and (we hope) child abuse, but on which subjects he is listened to with respect and reverence.

The point is that he has apparently thought deeply about the subject and feels it is of sufficient importance on both evidentiary and moral grounds to bring his influence to bear. He thus joins the great bulk of scientists, politicians and activists urging the need for action. Prayer and providence will simply not be enough.

It is hardly a breakthrough moment: over the many centuries popes have frequently taken overtly political stances when they have felt the need to speak. Of course they have sometimes, even often, been mistaken; the case of Galileo Galilei is only one of the more famous examples.

But their views are seldom discounted, partly through the power and influence of their office, but also partly because they are seen as largely free of self-interest. After all, when you have the Vatican and all its trappings, there are not many extra glittering prizes left to covet.

What is more, the current pope is regarded as one of the more popular in recent times. So bagging Pope Francis must surely be a singularly unproductive exercise.

So far, at least, our failed seminarian but still committed Catholic prime minster has sensibly remained silent, as has his former personal confessor, Cardinal George Pell, who has since ascended to Rome. But sooner or later, someone is bound to ask Tony Abbott just what he thinks about the Holy Father’s adjurations.

He is unlikely to deny him thrice, or even once, but he will have to do a little more than just repeating that Australia is playing its part, at a time when much of the rest of the world is vigorously attesting that the country is a laggard, if not a recalcitrant. It will not be a time for him to repeat the ritual response that coal is good for humanity, let alone the his earlier riposte that the science of climate change is crap – and so, by extension, are the words of the pontiff. 

It may be something for him to ponder during his evening devotions. Or he may just ignore it, as he has done with so many biblical precepts. Render unto Caesar, after all.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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