Pope Francis can claim many firsts; he is the first non-European Pope since 741 AD, the first from the Americas and the first from the Southern Hemisphere. Given his nuanced positions on science issues like climate change and agriculture, some might also consider him the first scientific Pope. That isn't correct, but he may be the most scientific in history.
Francis is not scientific due to credentialism, he does not have any advanced degree in chemistry. Instead, he is scientific by behavior.
Nothing says that more than his recent Encyclical Letter ("Laudato Si "). A casual reading may make it seem like it is about a narrow science issue, climate change. A more experienced reading quickly finds that climate change is only 28 pages out of 184. The rest is a rethink of spirituality through a framework of science, an evidence-based manifesto necessary for a confluence of science and religion in the 21st century. He is embracing science in a way that surpasses even the staunchest advocates for science among Catholics during its nearly 2,000 year history.
He does not simply endorse responsible ecology when it comes to creating fewer emissions by burning less coal and replacing it with natural gas, for example, he endorses it when it comes to feeding the poor. Pope Benedict XVI, the predecessor to Francis, had already endorsed genetically modified foods, and John Paul II before him. Given that, it is no surprise Francis wants science to be the great equalizer for the poor, and products like GMOS, be they bought by corporate farms or in the public domain like Golden Rice, advance that ideal. Everyone wants fewer pesticides on both organic and conventional food and the new encyclical calls on us to use the best available science, from areas like biology and chemistry, to continue America's trend toward producing more food with less land and less environmental strain, just as has happened since 1978, when the American Council on Science and Health was founded.
Like Benedict XVI, Francis has recognized proof-of-concept. America has created more food on less land than believed possible in the last 37 years - if the entire world had adopted science the way America does, farmland equivalent to the landmass of the entire United States could have been reverted to nature with no loss of food. Using 20 percent less energy. Advancing that kind of science was among the reasons that Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate and Father of the Green Revolution, joined the Founder's Circle of The Council when we were founded.
Though environmentalists also have reason to cheer, he does not simply side with their latest fads. While well-heeled urban fundraisers at those groups claim that more buildings and more people jammed into smaller spaces in large cities are the answer - lifestyle choices they seek to support with science - Pope Francis instead knows that more open spaces are needed for numerous reasons. "We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature," he writes.
And even while embracing climate change as physics, Francis goes out of his way to criticize politically partisan efforts to halt it, citing the "cap-and-trade" schemes that have been proposed. The New York Times takes him to task for balking at failed ideas, claiming that it works in California - while failing to note that California residents now pay 50 percent higher utility rates than other states because of green mandates and subsidies and other things needed to make cap-and-trade work.
Pope Francis puts science ahead of politics better than journalists at the New York Times can. His new paper does not make everyone across the cultural spectrum happy, but then again neither does science itself.