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Heed the Pope’s environmental message

Rick Santorum recently spoke with Philadelphia radio host Dom Giordano about Pope Francis and his planned visit to the city in September.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and current Republican presidential hopeful, praised the pope for “his focus on making sure that we have a healthier society” and said, “I support completely the pope’s call for us to do more to create opportunities for people to be able to rise in society and care for the poor. That’s our obligation as a society.”

If Santorum had left it at that, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, he didn’t.

When asked about the pope’s upcoming encyclical on the environment, Santorum said, “The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we’re probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we’re really good on, which is theology and morality. When we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, then I think the Church is probably not as forceful and credible.”

Santorum added that when Catholic bishops “get involved with agriculture policy, or things like that that are really outside the scope of what the Church’s main message is, that we’re better off sticking to things that are really the core teachings of the Church, as opposed to getting involved with every other kind of issue that happens to be popular at the time.”

Being responsible stewards of the planet is not an issue because society currently deems it popular. This focus on the environment will not diminish the way a child loses interest in a long-forgotten favorite toy of yesteryear.

As students of history know, the Catholic Church was promoting responsible environmental stewardship long before it was deemed cool or popular. Furthermore, the relationship between Catholicism and science has largely been one of cooperation, not conflict.

Whether it be through universities or hospitals, Catholics have been consistently active in advancing the sciences in various fields of study — ranging from Galileo and physics to Mendel and genetics.

The Vatican even has its own scientific research department, called the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Its stated mission is “to honor pure science wherever it may be found, ensure its freedom, and encourage research for the progress of science.” Throughout its existence — its roots extend to the Academy of the Lynxes, founded in 1603 — the academy’s members have won at least 48 Nobel Prizes.

I agree with Santorum that the Church should leave science to scientists. Any rational person should defer to the experts. Furthermore, academic reports from experts should be used by elected officials to make informed, fact-based decisions that benefit the common good.

So what do scientists who study climate change have to say? A report by NASA shows that 97 percent of climate scientists agree the theory of climate change is negatively affecting the planet and that human activity is a leading contributor. Statistically speaking, 97 percent is a consensus, hardly among what Santorum calls “controversial scientific theories.”

Santorum is also correct that the Church has gotten it wrong on science in the past. But the very nature of science allows for mistakes. That’s why there are hypotheses and theories. Scientists who disagree with climate change are obligated to challenge the current theory. Thus far, there has been no compelling counter-theory to climate change.

Catholics are called to address the pressing political issues of their time. Why else would Santorum mention his Catholic faith on the campaign trail, if not to influence the political debate? In “The Joy of the Gospel,” an apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI, declaring, “The Earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,’ the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’”

With an encyclical on the environment (due out this month), Pope Francis will be doing his part to protect and defend a planet we share with current and future generations. Nothing is more Christian or moral than promoting environmentally friendly ideas aimed at uplifting all of humanity. The promotion and protection of life are of paramount concern for Catholics. Therefore, if Rick Santorum is truly a faithful defender and promoter of life, he will come to embrace the teachings of Pope Francis on the environment.

Stephen Seufert is state director of Keystone Catholics, an online social justice advocacy organization in Pennsylvania.

©2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer