Faith, reason, and the future Pope Francis: An interview with Dr. Pablo Canziani

With so much being said about Pope Francis and ecology, it would be helpful to hear from someone who knows about both faith and science—and about Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Dr. Pablo Canziani of Buenos Aires is one such person.

Dr. Canziani (shown above, left ) is an atmospheric physicist who had been tapped by Cardinal Bergoglio to help the Argentinian Church better engage environmental issues. An active Catholic, he possess a masters and PhD from the University of Buenos Aires. He performed post-doctoral work at the University of Washington in Seattle, working under Dr. James Holton, a leading researcher in climate change. Dr. Canziani is a member of the Argentinian National Research Council and a university professor currently working in applied climate change studies, especially as they impact South America.

He is also a member of the Board of the Lay Department of the Argentinian Conference of Bishops and a member of a newly created network of Argentinian lay citizens. In this latter role he is working on the creation of a professional solidarity group for the environment and development.

Catholic Ecology: Thanks for taking the time to talk about your work in the Church and in science, which you blend quite naturally. So tell us, how does your faith impact the work that you do in the realm of science?

Dr. Canziani: At first it wasn’t easy. When I was getting my basic degrees there was all this discussions about faith versus science. But then in studying advanced topics, like quantum mechanics, I came to realize that there are no contradictions between science and faith. They are a complimentary and integral view of the universe. So as in quantum mechanics you have a view of what is the behavior an object that, under given conditions, is that of a particle but under different conditions is that of a wave. It’s the same thing in creation. It is a single thing with a view from the material, scientific perspective but also you have a view from a spiritual world—and to understand the whole thing you have to put them both together. They’re complimentary, because it’s all God’s creation.

"We have put the economy above everyone else. It even rules politics."

CE: The faith-reason link is something I’ve always appreciated about the Catholic faith. So why, do you think, is there such a rift today over scientific issues related to ecology? Why is there so much discord about topics like climate change?

Dr. Canziani: My feeling is that there is always this view that if you deal with environmental issues you’re going against the economy. And especially since the 1980s we see the economy as the big thing that drives everything. I’m not saying it’s wrong to think about the economy. I’m saying it’s misplaced in how we see it in the work of humanity. We have put the economy above everyone else. It even rules politics.

We have today economic interests that see the economy not as a management of scarcity but as a maximization of gains. And that’s a perversion of the economy.

And yet the economy is part of the biosphere. So as progress is made in science, there is a reaction against scientific results. And then you have that scientists are, in general, very poor at interacting with society. We were never trained for that. So a vast number of scientists cannot communicate their results—to explain them to the community at large.

CE: It seems that the Church now has an opportunity now to be the communicator for scientists.

Dr. Canziani: Yes. And I think that has been something that’s been brewing. We see this in preliminary ways in the writings of Pope Paul VI in Populorum Progressio, and that exploded with Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who was called the Green Pope—but I think he’s going to be overcome by Pope Francis. In Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate he says some very sound things about the environment. And in his last Easter homily he goes through the Creed through an environmental perspective.

And now we have Francis who studied before the priesthood as a technical chemist, and that influences his whole experience. And he managed to blend that with his views of humanity and with his faith.

CE: And he does it quite beautifully.

Dr. Canziani: Yes.

CE: What experience do you remember most that can help us understand Pope Francis’s engagement of the environment?

Dr. Canziani: I was involved with the lay ministries here because of him. He had heard about me and was surprised that I was a both a scientist and a practicing, active Catholic. So a few years after we met in 2002 he considered it could be useful if I joined the Catholic University (UCA) to create research opportunities around environmental and social issues. At the very beginning of my period at the UCA there was a huge problem here between Argentina and Uruguay because of a giant pulp mill that was being built on the border on the Uruguay River. I was asked by a local bishop for technical support. So I analyzed the situation with the environmental lawyers in my group and with some engineers and we produced a report.

That report went to Cardinal Bergoglio shortly before Holy Week. And then he found out himself where I was so that he could call me with questions—and I wasn’t at home that day that he called. I was visiting my mother-in-law. So he called my home and then he got the number of where I was that day and he called there. He had a number of questions about the report and the science at hand, which I answered. And this was about half an hour before he was going to celebrate the Stations of the Cross. That shows you how interested he is in these affairs.

CE: That is wonderful. And you heard your science echoed later.

Dr. Canziani: Yes. Yes. And then in April, 2012, the last time I actually met him, I was asked to spend two-thirds of a day at the national meeting of the [Argentinian] Conference of Bishops, which meets twice a year. We held a tutorial with two priests and me as a scientist on environmental issues from the point of view of the bible, from the social doctrine of the Church, and from the point of view of science.

And Cardinal Bergoglio was very attentive and involved. We actually put the bishops to work asking them to report out on the important environmental issues in their diocese.

CE: That’s great! How did they take it?

Dr. Canziani: Well, many of them were really interested. Some thought it was irrelevant. But it was a very successful day.

CE: So you come from a long track record of working with local bishops—and none other than the future pope himself—to better understand science to explore what we’re doing with God’s creation. So how would you encourage Catholics who may not be in that situation, who may have a family or a pastor that doesn’t appreciate the environmental connection with our faith. What would you tell them?

Dr.Canziani: I would say that one of the first problems is that people have to realize the limits of the planet we live in. It’s a beautiful planet. It’s a beautiful creation. But we have forgotten that we are part of that creation. And that’s very clear in the Old Testament and in the New—that we’re part of that biosphere. And we have to learn—as St. Paul said in Romans—creation is waiting for the redemption of humanity so it can be redeemed as well. Creation is suffering from the consequences of human action, and that’s in the epistles of St. Paul.

"People have to realize the limits of the planet we live in. It’s a beautiful planet. It’s a beautiful creation. But we have forgotten that we are part of that creation."

I had run a radio show on Radio Maria. One Holy Thursday, I had a theologian on and we spent ninety minutes speaking about environmental issues and joining them with Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross—and how these issues affect the lives of people, especially poor people. From that experience we realized there is a huge need in the community to understand environmental issues and how they relate to development—we cannot separate them from development.

I’m not sure how we would handle that in wealthy communities, like in countries like the U.S., as compared to many in Latin America, where people are closer to the environmental issues and they suffer much more frequently from issues like mega-mining, water rights, and mono-agriculture. All this is having an impact on people in Latin America—in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Brazil—a major social impact.

People are concerned because they’re seeing the environment disappearing before their eyes. So there is a growing base for change in the community that is getting to the priests—especially those from poor or mining areas. They’re very aware of these issues. So in that sense we have an easier task of talking about the environment in this part of the world because it’s a big issue.

An example: Archbishop Pedro Barreto of Huancayo, Peru—and he’s a good friend of the pope as well—he’s been menaced by the Shining Path (Sedero Luminoso) terrorists and owners of mines in Perú. He’s received death threats. He’s been threatened on both sides.

CE: A reminder of the stakes that some people hold in all this.

Dr. Canziani: Yes. And that’s the major issue—when you get all this materialistic views coming from both sides of the political spectrum. Both sides are materialistic. It’s a view of the world which we have to change. We’re being driven as it were to a materialistic view of things. And that has to change. Especially within the Catholic community. We have to understand that loving people means loving their environment as well.

CE: Which is really why all ideologies need to be welcome to the conversation because everyone has a part to play in this. Because it is about life.

Dr. Canziani: I often have to deal with politicians and other religious people and lay people who may not think the same as we do, and I have to explain to them that this is not about an agenda. This is something very basic. It comes before we can discuss an agenda. It’s basic survival of humanity and basic survival of creation—which in a sense has its own right to be because it was made by God.

So we’re not just fighting for humans we’re fighting for something that God created. And that becomes the starting point from which we can then discuss our political and religious perspectives. After all, we are bio dependent. We cannot live without life around us.

CE: Amen. So now we’re getting ready—the Church is getting ready—for the pope’s trip to the Philippines and later his encyclical on the environment. What are you expecting it to say, and having worked with the future pope on faith and science issues, how do you think he will handle those who say we should not be speaking about environmental issues because of the politics involved?

Dr. Canziani: He knows it’s not a political issue. He knows it’s a survival issue. And he is a very able politician himself. So he knows how to go around these issues—he can be either very diplomatic or very blunt. And he knows when to be both.

I think he’s been doing marvelous work of linking all the social issues with all the aspects of life, as he did here. We had a big smile when Evangelii Gaudium came out because so many of the things he said there he had said before here in Argentina. And because his philosophies are clearly going on with him, I know that he will have very strong positions on the environmental issues because he knows that you cannot change social issues—issues of poverty—and not also change the issues of the environment. As we say here in Argentina they are two sides of the same coin. You have to talk about them both to get a good solution for society.

You know, before he was elected he was very tired and thinking of retiring. And the way he is now—I think he’s being held by the Holy Spirit. Lots of us down here think that.

CE: Amen. So do lots of us up here.

Dr. Canziani: Okay!

CE: He’s a gift to the Church. No doubt about it. I had done my graduate work on Benedict XVI and I will always have a special place for him. So I felt badly that people didn’t understand or appreciate him better. And I was heartbroken when he stepped down. But I love Pope Francis. He’s the perfect, perfect person to be in the Chair of St. Peter right now.

Dr. Canziani: As we say down here, there are two things. The big problem with Benedict was that he wasn’t a good communicator of his thoughts outside of his writings. His writings are of course excellent—his thoughts are excellent. And they’re very modern.

"You needed someone like Benedict with a sound theological background to set the premises for what Francis is now executing."

And second, as we say down here, you can’t have Francis if you didn’t have Benedict. You needed someone like Benedict with a sound theological background to set the premises for what Francis is now executing.

CE: That’s absolutely right. So when people object to Francis’s comments on ecology, you can just refer them to Benedict, because he’s already laid the groundwork.

Dr. Canziani: Yes. And one thing that all Catholics should know is that all things being said about the environment are in the bible. I mean, the social doctrine of the Church is just taking the bible and adding today’s science and language—but it’s all there.

CE: I always look at the popes as pastors who no longer have many opportunities to have the same pastoral experiences as they did when they were priests or bishops. And Francis is certainly a pastor. How would he be if he sat with someone who thought climate change was a hoax, or someone upset at the Church’s involvement in the environment? How would he handle that?

Dr. Canziani: You know, I met him in his office a number of times. First thing, he never sat at his desk—only when he had to work. When he received someone he would bring two chairs together and sit by you and look at you earnestly and hear what you had to say. And then he would speak—slowly, with this slow, low voice. And then he would try to say what he thought about the issue. And if you had a different perspective you could tell it to him, frankly—at least that’s my experience. And he would meditate on what you said. When the conversation was done, he would actually walk you to the elevator himself, open the elevator for you, and ask you to pray for him. And he would bless your family. And that’s him.

And later if he had some new idea or more thoughts, he would either call you or have his secretary email you. So that’s the kind of person we’re speaking of.

CE: So how can we as a Church help him? Because some of our brothers and sisters may be angry right now because they’re understanding this whole conversation in a political way or a worldly way. What would Pope Francis like us to do to help him?

Dr. Canziani: I think he’d like us to do two things. First, a strong dialogue, through reason—with a solid scientific background and a solid analysis of the limitations of the current development models, looking at flaws in economic models. And I’m speaking now as a physicist analyzing economic theory, because there are many economic issues that need to be reviewed from a physical-biological perspective—because the economy is in everything—

CE: Right. “Economy” and “ecology” have the same root word.

Dr.Canziani: Yes. Ecology, the understanding of the home. Economics, the management of the home. So we have to understand that.

And then second, once we have looked at the science of all this—once that is more or less clear and we understand our own limitations as well—we have to look at the things that top all this: ethics and faith. And if you go through this process, even the most staunchly anti-environmentalist will realize how wrong he is.

CE: Yes. And it is a process. And it has to be done pastorally because people are hurting and afraid. And that’s really what we’re doing here—dialoguing to help Catholics and non-Catholics understand what the Church is doing when she engages ecology. So on that note, before closing is there anything else you’d like to say, anything you’d like to add?

Dr. Canziani: Yes. My wife and I are both members of the charismatic Church renewal and I think the crucial need that can help change people is prayer—especially prayers thanking God for everything—for creation and everyone. And praying for the sick and the poor. Over the years I’ve seen this in many of the writings of the saints, which are not frequently read. But prayer is very powerful.

And this is not just prayer in Church, but in the countryside—prayer watching the environment. There’s an old Spanish movie I think of. It’s called “It’s Sunrise, and it’s Not a Little Thing.” Even a sunrise should result in a prayer of gratitude.

I also want to say that in the books on ecology that I am writing with my sister, we choose not to use the term sustainability. We use the term “human integral development,” because nature evolves. Humanity develops.

CE: Yes, from Paul VI—

Dr. Canziani: —Yes—

CE: —and that reminds me of how Pope Francis has been using the term “human ecology,” coined by Saint John Paul II and continued by Benedict XVI—a term that connects ecology with the fundamental issues of life, like abortion. I think that when people finally read the encyclical they will be surprised—on both ends of the political spectrum—they’ll be surprised because they won’t be expecting the language that he will use.

Dr. Canziani: No. I am certain of that.

CE: Which makes it a lot of fun to read.

Dr. Canziani: Yes. When he releases a document we read the Spanish version and we find all the localisms that he would use here. And we wonder how the translators in the Vatican manage to handle that.

CE: [Laughs] From what I can see, Pope Francis is keeping everyone at the Vatican on their toes.

Dr. Canziani: [Laughs] Oh yes, yes. That’s good!

CE: Pablo, you’re a blessing. Many thanks, and I look forward to talking soon.

Dr. Canziani: Thank you, and God bless.

Photo: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Dr. Pablo Canziani (left) at a book presentation in Argentina in 2011. Used with permission by Dr. Canziani.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.