Conflict is brewing at the Vatican. When the Pontifical Academy for Sciences took up the Climate Change cause in concert with U.N. leaders and political activists with a history of opposing Catholic teachings, battle lines were drawn, the flames of conflict were fueled, and Catholic unity was threatened. As a result, criticism greeted Pope Francis’ anticipated encyclical on the environment even prior to publication.

Given the history of the largely misunderstood Galileo incident, one might think church leadership would exercise caution when it comes to the nexus between scientific enquiry, political power and theology. The Church appears to have stepped over that delicate line separating a teaching moment from an embarrassing “incident” when it hosted politically powerful advocates for climate change policy while excluding alternative scientific viewpoints.

A few argue the recent critical outcry was premature. Our Sunday Visitor expressed outrage: “Well before the encyclical’s release, a veritable campaign against its content has not only been initiated, but has been growing in intensity.” However, perhaps the OSV editorial missed the point: the complaints do not address Pope Francis’ words, which we have not yet read; rather they charge the dialogue has been handled poorly, unnecessarily escalating conflict among Catholics. One does not need to read the encyclical to recognize the negotiation process has been deeply flawed and biased.

A mediator views these events from a conflict resolution perspective, considering process as well as outcomes. In mediation, HOW we reach a result matters. If an outcome is negotiated without all parties involved, that outcome will not endure. Excluded parties will immediately distrust any outcome.

The selection of participants for the Vatican’s climate change conference was an egregious violation of sound process. The conference, attended by the “UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon and Jeffrey Sachs, director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, … outspoken advocates of the man-made global warming hypothesis,” was closed to prominent scientists representing alternate views. Those seeking the Pope’s endorsement for tough international political measures commandeered the stage.

The Vatican’s refusal to listen to all the evidence means they have forfeited any claim to neutrality or thoroughness, long before any encyclical is published. They have violated fair and just process in the deliberation on an issue of prudential judgment. 

Scientific Consensus or Bully Tactics?

Climate change activists argue other views don’t deserve a forum: the debate is over. “Climate change deniers,” in their view, are at best benighted dupes, at worst evil manipulators. Their bullying tactic of calling others “deniers” worries and angers many, like Cardinal Pell, the former Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, who notes that pejorative language, “however expedient as an insult or propaganda weapon,” is hardly useful. When climate change activists employ bullying tactics such as aggressively excluding alternate views, they fuel conflict.

Such tactics expose activists’ intention to silence debate, as Cardinal Pell notes, “My suspicions have been deepened over the years by the climate movement’s totalitarian approach to opposing views, their demonising of successful opponents and their opposition to the publication of opposing views even in scientific journals.” However, valid science requires robust debate. Theories that escape intense scrutiny don’t deserve to be called science. Scrutiny is the basis of the peer-review process.

Cardinal Pell is not alone in doubting the intentions of climate change activists. Organizations like The Heartland Institute and the Cornwall Alliance, along with more and more scientists have expressed concerns. William M. Briggs, consultant and adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, with specialties in medicine and the philosophy of science, points out the IPCC (the UN agency leading the climate agenda) has issued reports that diverge from the evidence.

Briggs notes, “It is a logical truth, and a fact once known to all scientists, that models which make consistently lousy predictions imply the theories underlying them are false. Since the models make lousy forecasts, we know the theories upon which the models are based are wrong. And since these theories are wrong, they should not be believed. And since they should not be believed, we should not base decisions on them.” In other words, U.N. climate change models have been falsified and do not warrant a Vatican endorsement.

The Pope guards the deposit of faith bequeathed to us by Jesus and his apostles. His job does not involve taking sides on scientific disputes, or lending his name to political causes bound up with such disputes. While the moral duty to care for God’s creatures may be a non-negotiable point of faith, anthropogenic climate change activism is not. The political solutions demanded are matters that require prudential judgment, with broad and varied input.

Don’t Publish, Mediate

The Vatican’s flawed process threatens to cause severe damage to Catholic unity. The potential for harm is great. Taming the Wolf Institute manages this type of conflict by combining contemporary conflict resolution with the legacy of St. Francis.

The Institute deescalates conflict before consequences spiral out of control. Avoidance is not an effective strategy, as being “nice” is not making peace. Rather, a proactive conflict resolution approach is needed without delay. Failure to act in a timely manner hardens divisions and fuels escalation. Far too often we opt for avoidance, as convening is challenging. Getting parties “to the table” is difficult, as no one seeks reconciliation unless they perceive clear potential benefit. Thus, the first task a mediator undertakes is helping parties see possible gain.

This first task requires a mediator identify conflict dynamics. Who are the parties? What primary negotiation is taking place? In this instance, Church officials gather on one side of the table, across from U.N. leadership and climate change political activists.

What is the negotiation about? Climate change activists are requesting Papal assistance. They seek the endorsement of the Catholic Church to lend credibility to their movement. Pope Francis must decide how to respond to their request.

The stakeholders on the Church side of the table are not in agreement. They do not come to the table with a consensus. This division must figure into the Pope’s decision.

With this fact pattern, a mediator shifts focus from the primary negotiation to the “same side of the table” conflict. He seeks to reestablish unity in the community, as unity is a core Catholic value. Failure to manage division will bring about adverse consequences, so a “time out” in the primary negotiation is required.

How might a mediator begin? Prior to convening, a mediator gleans expressions of concern from the public record. For example, the grievance concerning the Vatican’s negotiating partners may cause the mediator to place the issue of trust on the table – can the Church trust those seated across the table? Can the Church lend an endorsement to Ban Ki-Moon, Jeffrey Sachs, and other prominent climate change activists?

Agenda Item Two might concern discerning the actual intentions, stated and unstated, of the negotiating partners. Are the actual goals of the negotiating partners known? Might deception be involved? Will Papal endorsement of such goals harm the Church?

Item Three concerns the Vatican negotiating team. Are our negotiation representatives qualified? Do they know the subject matter? Are they skilled negotiators? Do their views align with the long-term goals of the faithful? Do negotiators harbor bias that might harm or compromise the process? Will negotiators respect limits on their authority? Will they confer with the community before formalizing key agreements?

Item Four might address Church goals. Do we really know our own goals? Negotiating an alliance with U.N. political activists requires an in-depth review of Church interests. What do we hope to achieve? Due diligence must be employed to evaluate risks and rewards. What might be reason for the Church to walk away from the table?

After such a “same side of the table” mediation, the Church would be much better prepared to move forward with a competent negotiating team securing satisfaction of the Church’s interests while maintaining unity.

After a cursory review of the public record the Institute advises Pope Francis to mediate first, and publish only after divisions have been transformed into unity. The stakes are too high for the Church negotiators to ignore the duty of prudential judgment. The first step in achieving prudential wisdom is mediating “same side of the table” conflict in a Spirit-driven process that brings Catholics to a collaborative stance that insures long-term Church goals are achieved.

Publishing an encyclical as an act of political activism that endorses a secular agenda is a risky undertaking. Lending Church support to secular political goals is dangerous. If the Church wishes to manage the risk it is best the Church first hammer out the details in an in-depth mediation with those on “the same side of the table.” It is precisely in such a conciliatory process that the Pope can best listen to the Holy Spirit.