Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo has steered the Pontifical Academy of Sciences since 1998, but it’s likely that his profile has never been more robustly public than now.
For the past year, Sanchez Sorondo has teamed with scientists and political leaders to help research, promote and defend Pope Francis’ stern and sweeping condemnation of current environmental and economic trends.
Most recently, the archbishop, who, like Francis, hails from Buenos Aires, convened a conference of more than 60 mayors and other local politicians this week at the Vatican.
Sanchez Sorondo spoke with CNN on Friday about the controversy swirling around the Pope’s economic and environmental statements, how Francis will likely recalibrate his message this September when he visits in the United States and the leak of the pontiff’s environmental statement this summer.
Some of the archbishop’s answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Some people might be surprised to hear that the Vatican has a science academy. What is your mission?
A: Yes, that’s true, people are often surprised to hear about us. You can see a lot about our mission on our website, but the basic idea is that the church believes that understanding human beings and the Earth requires not only faith but also reason, and not only philosophical reason but also scientific reason.
Q: You just hosted a major conference at the Vatican for mayors and other political leaders around the world. What was the conference’s main accomplishment?
A: Part of it was, as the Pope said in his address to the group, to bring awareness that climate change and human trafficking – a new form of slavery – are human emergencies.
Some attendees, like California Gov. Jerry Brown, spoke very passionately about protecting the environment. Others, like many mayors in Italy, have more awareness of a new form of slavery, so it was important for them to be able to learn from each other.
Q. It seems like the Vatican is partnering with quite a few people – the Jewish feminist Naomi Klein, for example – that would not be seen as traditional church allies. What is the strategy behind that?
A: We understand that in this globalized world we all need to work together. As the Pope says in his encyclical, “Laudato Si,” the Earth is our common home.
Q: According to a new poll, the Pope’s popularity has declined in the United States by quite a bit recently, mainly because many conservatives are upset with his messages on climate change and income inequality. Is this a cause of concern to you or to others in the Vatican?
I would say that this was also very clear in your (the U.S.) Constitution and the great leaders of your country wrote many times about the common good and justice. But many people say, including some economists, that these values are not so present at the moment. I am not sure if that is true, but that is what I have read.
Q: Some American Catholics say they are tired of being scolded by the Pope about doing more for the poor and the disenfranchised. What would you say to them?
A: The project of the Pope is to come back to the Gospel, particularly Christ’s first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. It is very clear in that speech that Christ expects us to help those who suffer, especially the poor.
So, the best attitude to receive the Pope’s teachings is to understand that he is a religious leader and the essence of his message comes from the Gospel, not from one ideology or another.
And so, if our economic systems are not oriented toward the human person but only concerned with profits, he wants to confront the system and change it. This, by the way, is common to all the popes, it comes directly from the so-called social teachings of the church.
Q: In Latin America, the Pope delivered a sharp speech against capitalism, calling the relentless pursuit of profits the “dung of the devil.” A lot of people are wondering, will he bring a similar message to the United States this September?
A: I don’t know if the Pope wants to repeat that kind of speech. It was very specifically for the World Meeting of Popular Movements. These are people who are very poor: They don’t have a house, they don’t have work, the don’t have land. I think, in your country, people don’t have the same needs, so maybe he will speak in another way.
Q: Some prominent Catholics say the Pope should not preach or teach about matters like the environment and economics.
A: I know, I know, and they are very important persons – some of them are campaigning to become president. But this is a mistake because when the Pope speaks in this area, about creation or nature, he goes back to St. Francis and to the beginnings of the Bible, when God’s first gift to mankind is the Earth and all of its creations.
So, this idea that it is not “Christian” to speak of the beauty of creation and about our role to be stewards of that beauty is just insane.
Q: Have you been surprised by any of the reactions to the Pope’s statement on the environment, “Laudato Si?”
The majority of reactions were very positive. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Archbishop Justin Welby of the Anglican Church wrote a very nice article in The New York Times on the same day the encyclical was published.
A small minority was against it, and of this minority we can say that the underlying reason was because these people live off of oil, and it’s clear that the encyclical teaches that the use of this material is not the best thing for the question of climate change and that we need to find new ways to produce energy.
Q: So you are saying that most of the opposition to “Laudato Si” came from the oil and gas industries?
A: Yes, I think so. Because as the Pope says in the encyclical, 90% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is a problem today, and that this (use of oil and gas) is a cause of global warming.
Q: The encyclical was leaked a few days before it was to be published. Did this annoy you?
A: This is a problem typical of journalism, and journalists need to abide by the rules. (The document was embargoed.) The journalist was punished, also, by being banned for a time from the Vatican press room.
Q: The journalist was punished, but what about the person who leaked the document? Was there an investigation into that?
Q: Do you know who it was?
A: It’s very easy to know who it was.
Q: Can you tell me who it was, and whether they will be punished?
A: No, I am sorry. That is not my responsibility.