Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Coal warriors targeting Pope Francis


Cover of Laudato Si It is not surprising that The Australian should be leading the local pushback on Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si. This remarkable document is almost a line by line rejection of the neo-liberal agenda of the Murdoch press.

Paul Kelly’s frenzied opinion article accused the pope of being an 'environmental populist', 'economic ideologue', 'quasi-Marxist', of employing 'hysterical' language, and of 'profound intellectual ignorance', all by the second paragraph.

Of course anyone familiar with Catholic Social Teaching would know that the pope’s message was deeply embedded in that tradition and should not have been at all surprised. After all, the pope is a Catholic.

What is surprising is that a Catholic priest should be joining the chorus against the encyclical. Fr James Grant, an adjunct fellow of the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), has written a piece entitled 'It’s unchristian to oppose coal generated power' (The Australian, July 10), suggesting that the pope’s concern for the poor would be better placed promoting the advantages of cheap coal generated electricity.

The pope on the other hand singled out coal as a major contributor to climate change: 'technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.'

Grant appears to be a colourful character. A convert to Catholicism from Anglican ministry, one of his achievements was the establishment of 'Chaplains without borders.' While the name echoes 'Doctors without borders' (Médecins sans Frontières), a humanitarian organisation dedicated to bringing medical services to those most in need, 'Chaplains without borders' provides spiritual services for 'range of organisations from corporations, such as banks or central offices, to semi-corporate organisations, like shopping centres or football clubs.' While many of these areas are undoubtedly spiritual wastelands, it is less clear why those in these groups cannot simply access spiritual services in their local churches.

Grant’s initial foray against the encyclical was an IPA press statement, released even before the contents of the document were known, seeking to reassure Catholics that the pope’s message was not binding Catholic teaching. Technically there is some truth to this, but it is a strange understanding of loyalty to the pope to seek to defuse his message even before it was made public. His more recent contribution to The Australian is right out of the briefing notes supplied by the coal industry in its global public relations efforts to shore up its waning reputation.

In strains we’ve regularly heard from the coal industry, we’re told coal is the best way of bringing people out of poverty by providing them with the electricity necessary for improving their way of life. Coal is by far the cheapest way to generate electricity to free them from the burdens of poverty.

One might be able to maintain such a position as long was one doesn’t take some of the following into account: the $1.5 billion per day of subsidies given globally to the fossil fuel industry (according to the International Energy Agency); the aesthetic cost of scarred landscapes in otherwise pristine conditions; the political cost of corruption in the granting of coal licenses as evidenced in ICAC hearings; the capital cost of centralised power distribution networks lacking in poor countries; the medical cost of mining, distributing and burning coal, through injuries and respiratory diseases; the social cost of climate change caused by coal burning, especially from rising sea levels on coast regions (a point especially noted by Pope Francis). This is why when fossil fuel companies do in fact seek to provide an energy supply to the world’s poor, they often opt for solar. BHP Billiton uses solar panels to help with energy poverty in Southern Pakistan, while Adani Mining provides solar-powered streetlights to villages in India. Solar power is getting cheaper by the day, set to hit $1 per kilowatt hour, it is decentralised and non-polluting. Why would we not want to use it to the utmost?

Of course the real issue here is climate change. Either one accepts what Pope Francis has called the 'very solid scientific consensus' on human induced climate change, or one does not. If one does not, cheap coal may be the answer; if not then what cheap coal gives with one hand, it takes with the other twice or three times over. Cheap coal, in fact, costs the earth.

We all know that climate change is contested, but those who oppose the 'very solid consensus' are regularly exposed as scientific outliers, eccentrics, or people with compromising links to the fossil fuel industry. Fr Grant and the IPA do not appear to hold any scientific expertise, and are colourful perhaps, but not eccentric. The question then is what is the source of the IPA’s funding? Undoubtedly IPA personnel would hold the same opinions anyway, but someone is paying handsomely to have those opinions trumpeted over the media onto an unsuspecting public.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, a member of ACU's Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry and a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, environment, encyclical, Pope Francis, The Australian, coal



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thanks Neil for this very well argued contribution. It is surely a valid question to ask these "warriors" where their funding is coming from.

Brian Johnstone | 14 July 2015  

There is nothing new in a priest opposing papal teaching; on its publication in 1931, a number of European bishops banned Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno, on reconstructing the social order, from distribution in their dioceses. It is interesting to note that the German Jesuit, Oswald von Nell-Bruening (who, incidentally, was instrumental in drafting that encyclical) at another time pointed out that many of the European hierarchy were – and may still be for all I know – from the aristocracy and shared the aristocracy’s mentality and values. The same could be said for Fr James Grant (whoever he is) if he is from a family that regards personal enrichment as a worthy goal then, naturally, he shares those values and would feel a little uneasy at a pope suggesting that economies ought to be directed to human need, not profit.

Paul | 15 July 2015  

Sadly we live in a world driven by greed and control from a very small percentage of the world's population. Pope Francis is right to stand up for the earth God created and for his people, especially those without a voice. And as you pointed out in this article, we must question journalists' agenda, and what is influencing them to make their argument.

Cate | 15 July 2015  

Well done Neil. And let's keep asking: "who pays IPA?"

Jim Jones | 15 July 2015  

“In the Church’s teaching, even in areas where we are allowed to disagree with the Pope, we are still expected to respect and to give it a fair hearing and to be docile to it. It doesn’t mean blindly accepting it, but it does mean not just outright dismissing it.” (Fr. Thomas Petri, vice president and academic dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.)

Kate Hook | 15 July 2015  

If chaplain Grant is the same Fr Grant who is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, and if he is the Fr Grant who is or was chaplain to Melbourne's Crown Casino, then no doubt he is an authority on many things and to be reckoned with.

David Timbs | 15 July 2015  

Thank you for this article. As one of the Catholic faithful, I was insulted by James Grant's article casting judgement of Christians the way he did. Yes, it appears the comments did come out of the coal industry propaganda. Sadly, Grant felt it necessary to take this nonsense and turn it into a chastising sermon to the those Christians who care about the environment more than the dollar.

Michelle | 15 July 2015  

Thank you Neil. Clear, consistent and logical as always. Interesting that in some cases priests and bishops who critique a teaching are investigated and silenced but in others let run. We will wait and see if he is asked to desist!

Pauline Small | 15 July 2015  

"What is surprising is that a Catholic priest should be joining the chorus against the encyclical." What is even more surprising, Prof Ormerod, is that dissidence from a Catholic priest surprises you. when you have lived for 50 years in a Church scourged by remarkably disloyal and dissident clergy in a chorus approaching a massed choir.

john frawley | 15 July 2015  

Why am I not surprised to see a priest - Fr James Grant - is an adjunct fellow of the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA)? It left me with the same taste in my mouth when I heard Cardinal Pell had attended the 70th birthday bash for IPA with guests such as Murdoch, Andrew Bolt, Gina Rinehart and Tony Abbott. Thwe issue is quite straightforward really - there won't BE an earth for people to live on, for the common good or otherwise, if a mutually enhancing, life-enriching response to climate change is not addressed. These people don't seem to 'get it'! ... and yes, Neil who is funding this perspective, I wonder?

mary tehan | 15 July 2015  

"Massed choir" Mr. Frawlry sir? Try discordant Chinese drama that incorporates various art forms, such as music, song and dance, martial arts, acrobatics, as well as literary art forms to become for Western ears, pandemonium, akin to 'postgonesillier' deform buffoonery.

Father John George | 15 July 2015  

As an expatriate Australian it concerns me that the IPA appears to be a similar organization to Santamaria's Democratic Labor Party which aplit the Church and the Labor Party in the fifties. This collaboration with the coal producing moguls is disgusting

Joan Thomas | 15 July 2015  

"As long as we remain sheep, we overcome. Even though we may be surrounded by a thousand wolves, we overcome and are victorious. But as soon as we are wolves, we are beaten; for then we lose the support of the Shepherd who feeds not wolves, but only sheep". (Richard of St Victor). What a pity Fr. Grant has chosen to run with the wolves.

Joan Seymour | 15 July 2015  

This article should be sent to the Australian. Would they publish it? Jacinta

Jacinta Heffey | 15 July 2015  

Rural non host neighbours of huge wind turbines forced to leave their homes and lives they have lived for generations are accused of being pro coal and anti wind. This is unfair and untrue. I am environmentally aware and support renewable energy fully but at the ages of 76 and 74 my husband of over 50 years and I will soon be forced out of our home because of the close proximity to turbines higher than the Sydney Harbour bridge. Sleep deprivation especially in the elderly leads to a myriad of health problems. Solution is in hands of the proponents of wind farms, just don't build them so close to human habitation. With careful planning and community consultation all problems could be alleviated. As in the case of any large corporate bodies, greed overrides any consideration for vulnerable families. I sometimes think the Church needs to look at the bigger picture. The encyclical exhorts us to protect the poor and vulnerable. This is not happening as no one is defending people like us, including the majority of the Medical profession who are unwilling to speak out even when presented with strong anecdotal evidence that harm to health is occurring.

NameAngela | 15 July 2015  

It is sad, when we have a debate on climate change, some environmentalists accuse every-day people of being sceptic, bad and ignorant. Yet we know that by 2030 it will be the beginning of the mini ice-age. And today the Barrier Reef is as good as ever, agriculture in Australia: is growing more than our farming future. We should not worry about climate change. Australia is a great country. We have a good government, planning for a great future. We should be concerned with the evil dictators of the Islamic States, in some South American republics, North Korea and other places in the world.

Ron Cini | 15 July 2015  

I hope Dr Ormerod’s ticker is stout. Because I, a global warming skeptic am about to agree with him. The proposition “It’s unchristian to oppose coal-generated power” is frankly ridiculous. As a traditional Catholic, free market advocate and defender of the unjustly-maligned coal industry, I’ve never subscribed to this purported marriage of revelation and technology, and never will. Likewise the corresponding proposition that “It’s unchristian to support coal-generated power”. Both statements betoken an ignorance of Vatican II's Gaudium Et Spes, and thus betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between revelation and the natural sciences. So, without further ado, I’ll join Dr O in hauling all the offenders out to the stocks. On our journey, I’ll put to him that we should at least be grateful to Brother Coal and Sisters Oil and Gas for saving the world’s big whales, the seals, the walruses and the forests of Europe from certain extinction by about 1920.

HH | 15 July 2015  

Thatcher: a laisser-faire devotee, and Bergoglio, devoted to social justice. Their common strand? Both trained in chemistry, both all too aware of the 2nd Law of thermodynamics. To all the Fr Grants out there: leave your pathetic ideological props behind. Both science and the Vatican have moved on since Galileo. Thank God.

Fred Green | 15 July 2015  

Well written Neil. Like the Tobacco Industry, the Coal/Oil industries will do their upmost to defend the indefensible .As usual HH (who ever you are ) is spruiking nonsense-how about Social Justice and the Option for the Poor?.
"Name Angelia" which is worse the pollution, dust, lung diseases and destruction of valuable farmlands to mine coal, leaving great holes in the ground, or a collection of wind towers, which not only produce electricity from a renewable resource, but allow farming , grazing and other operations to continue unhindered.
Lastly Ron Cini , I have been doing climate analysis and research for more than a decade as well as reading all the material I can find both for and against climate change. So - where's the evidence that we are heading for an ice age and why is this so?? Most climatologists, including all those I know, agree that we are stuffing up the climate .Worse we are fast running out of time to prevent dangerous and irreversible climate change. We owe it to future generations to desist.

Gavin O'Brien | 16 July 2015  

Gavin, Dr O is right: if there's no anthropogenic catastrophic global warming from fossil fuels, then they are currently the cheapest and most practical sources of energy. My scepticism about the global warming theory, which has firmed up from agnosticism as the 18.5 years (to date) of no atmospheric warming whatsoever (not just no *catastrophic* warming) have rolled on, thus inclines me, as I ponder the plight of the poor, to consider coal and fossil fuels as by far and away their best energy option at present- though of course solar and wind technologies, et al, may come into the mix as their efficiency improves. I could be wrong, of course, and welcome rational input on these issues. Just because someone has a different scientific and/or economic outlook than you (or the Pope) doesn't mean they don't have a concern for the poor.

HH | 17 July 2015  

Do you realise that coal only costs 3 cents per kWHr? This is capital payoff + running costs. Also solar does not pay back the energy used to make it at this point in time. I think you need to take the green blindfold off and think logically.

Michael | 17 July 2015  

it is incorrect to say that "solar does not pay back the energy used to make it at this point in time." while once true it has long since not been the case. see http://reneweconomy.com.au/2013/dispelling-myth-of-energy-payback-of-renewable-energy-systems-75607. In fact solar is comparable to coal in this regard.

Neil Ormerod | 17 July 2015  

For those commenting that the free market and coal somehow go hand in hand, may I suggest you consult a financial advisor? Investment funds and industries/businesses are already looking ahead to "peak coal" and predicting how to take advantage of growth in renewables as coal gradually loses its dominance. And by the way, the issue with coal is not just "global warming" or climate change - in China the big problem is urban smog,

AURELIUS | 18 July 2015  

A bit of confusion here: "set to reach $1 per kilowatt hour" is a misreading of the quoted article which reads "that $1 per watt is not only on the horizon, but is less than two years away." $1 per watt refers to the capital cost of 1 watt of installed solar capacity. That watt has to collect solar energy for 1000 hours to give us a kilowatt hour of energy. How much this kilowatt hour costs is a function the costs of financing, depreciation and maintenance. When similar costs or coal fired generation are taken into account, we find that we have reached a point where there is little to choose between a solar watt and a coal watt. Coal, however, is going up as we recognize and account for more of its indirect costs. Solar in going down as the reduction in costs associated with larger scale adoption begins to bite.

Jeffrey Nichols | 18 July 2015  

Thank you so much for this article.Still get the Australian and can guess ahead what it will trumpet if I read the latest far right Republican propaganda emerging from the USA. Try being a woman and getting a letter published by them! Tried once.Do a count-virtually all men.Murdoch attacks the ABC mercilessly. Who would love to get his hands on that broadcaster?

Fran | 18 July 2015  

To reply to Gavin O,BRIEN, You,like so many others insist on putting me in the pro coal anti wind basket. If you read my comment properly, I am not against wind farms, just the poor planning and disregard for collateral damage to non host neighbours. Thanks to the planning minister of the day in 2010, people like me have no avenue of appeal except the Supreme Court which is unaffordable.There is room for solar and wind in the energy mix. The issue should be taken out of the political arena and a duty of care shown to all stakeholders. I am disgusted by the point scoring which I am the victim of simply because I had the dumb bad luck to have a small property that the powers that be decided was a good wind resource. Community consultation was a sham. Why not build wind turbines in Port Phillip Bay or beside the long Alcoa power line that crosses Victoria from east to west and ends up in Portland? There are so many solutions but no one seems to care to do the right thing to help those who have been badly affected. It is very Orwellian - big brother

Angela | 18 July 2015  

Boy Omerod has got it in for Grant hasn't he?

Peelby | 19 July 2015  

Well articulated. And how do we find out who funds the IPA.

John Kindellan | 01 August 2015  

I applaud Neil Ormerod's defence of the encyclical. I also respect the right of priests to express their own opinions. But, as part of the clergy they have responsibilities towards the Church. By choosing The Australian and The Financial Review they are undermining the authority of the Pope. I do not agree.

Roy Fanthome | 10 August 2015  

Similar Articles

Encyclical's groundbreaking critique of technology

  • Paul Collins
  • 15 July 2015

While Francis has no time for technological solutions and 'fixes' for complex ecological problems, he is no techo-Luddite. What he does is link technological knowledge to power and says that those with this knowledge and the economic resources to use it, gain 'an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world.'


'The Australian' gangs up on Pope Francis

  • Bruce Duncan
  • 10 July 2015

In a series of articles, The Australian newspaper has strongly criticised the new encyclical Laudato Si', with editor-at-large Paul Kelly charging that the Pope has 'delegitimised as immoral' pro-market economic forces. This is wrong. Pope Francis is not opposed to the free market in principle, but insists that it be well regulated to ensure social justice for all involved.