Pope Francis’ recently-released encyclical on the environment (June 18) has been hailed by environmentalist David Suzuki as a “powerful, scientifically and morally valid call for radical change that will reach an audience far beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.” Suzuki called the pope’s eco-encyclical “scientifically valid.” There is solid science behind the pope’s document, claims Suzuki.
Three days after issuing his eco-encyclical, Pope Francis travelled to Turin, Italy where he paid a special visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in order to venerate the Shroud of Turin, the cloth in which Jesus allegedly was buried and which purportedly depicts an image of the crucified Christ from head to foot. The pope sat before the dimly-lit display case containing the stained, rectangular length of cloth for several minutes, silent, head bowed, in what appeared to be a time of reflection and prayer.
What the pope did was to pay his respects to an object that science has ‘outed’ as a medieval forgery. That the cloth in the display case is a fraud has been demonstrated in a number of ways (too many to describe in detail in this blog, so I will limit myself to a few of the most important ones). In 1988, radiocarbon-dating tests were carried out on the cloth in three different labs: in labs at the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. All three labs radiocarbon dated the cloth to between 1260 and 1390.
These dates are significant, for the shroud surfaced in 1355, a time of relic frenzy in Europe. Any abbey or cathedral that housed an important relic could count on attracting pilgrims, which in turn would greatly enhance that institution’s status and financial standing. Consequently, there was an incentive to recover ‘relics’. The shroud now housed in Turin turned up in the possession of a French soldier-of-fortune who, rather revealingly, wouldn’t tell how and where he got it. And he wasn’t the only one to acquire Christ’s ‘burial garment’, for it seems there were at least 26 to 40 burial shrouds to be found in Europe’s ecclesiastical institutions. Significantly, a medieval pope himself rejected claims made concerning the Shroud of Turin: in 1390, Pope Clement VII declared that the Shroud of Turin should not be said to be the true burial cloth of Jesus.
The object of veneration on display in Turin’s cathedral, moreover, is not woven in a style typical of 1st century cloth. In 2009, a shroud was recovered from the 1st century AD tomb of a Jewish priest in Jerusalem. The shroud retrieved from that tomb shows that the style of weaving at that time was primitive. The Shroud of Turin is too intricately woven to be a genuine 1st century artefact.
Furthermore, Jesus’ dead body–according to the biblical record–wasn’t wrapped in one long piece of cloth but in multiple cloths. Jesus was buried according to Jewish custom of the time. His corpse was wrapped in “linen wrappings” and a “face cloth” was placed on his head (Luke 24:12; John 19:40; 20:3-7 NASV). John’s description of Lazarus’ emergence from the tomb is instructive: “The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth…” (11:40). The idea that Jesus was buried in one rectangular piece of cloth 4.47 meters long by 1.13 meters wide doesn’t ‘square’ with Jewish burial practices at the time or with the biblical account of his burial.
Pope Francis undoubtedly knows what investigation has revealed about the Shroud of Turin. Recent popes, however–unlike Pope clement VII–won’t take a stand regarding its authenticity. They won’t call it a relic, but neither will they reject it as a fake. Instead, they choose to label the cloth “an icon that inspires.” When Pope Benedict XVI viewed the cloth in 2010, he spoke of it as an “icon of Holy Saturday.” The current pope, after spending several minutes in silence and contemplation, called it “an icon of Christ’s great love for humankind.” I can’t help but wonder: How exactly does a fraudulent relic call to mind Christ’s great love for us?
It would seem that the pope places importance on scientific facts when they help to promote a cause, i.e., combatting climate change, yet on other occasions can ignore them i.e., Shroud of Turin. In his “scientifically valid” eco-encyclical, the pope calls on not just Catholics, but people of all religions to come together to promote an “integral ecology.” Human activity is responsible for global warming, he claims in his document. But the science of climate change is not settled. Certainly, the planet is heating up, and the weather is doing wacky things. I’m not convinced, however, that the rising temperatures are wholly due–or even partially due–to human activity. And the pope–given his inconsistent acknowledgment of scientific facts–will have a hard time convincing me.