The following comes from a December 5 Federalist article by Daniel Payne:

A recent article at the San Diego Union-Tribune by Joshua Emerson Smith is headlined by this astonishing announcement: “Catholic leaders: climate change on same level as abortion and death penalty.”

If you are a devout Roman Catholic, or even just someone who follows the Catholic Church with any interest, you will know what a jaw-dropper this claim is. “Catholic leaders” believe that “climate change” is on the “same level” as abortion and the death penalty? Who said this, and why?

These Issues Are Morally Quite Different

Before we get to the gristle that comprises this article, it is worth pointing out that, right away, this headline doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least not in regards to the practical theology of the Catholic Church. Why? Because the three issues presented within the headline itself—climate change, abortion, and the death penalty—are radically disparate, not merely morally but in the practical application of each issue within the church’s moral framework.

The Catholic Church, after all, teaches that abortion is a grave sin and a moral evil that can never be justified and all Catholics must oppose. But it does not teach the same thing about the death penalty, which the church allows can be justified under certain circumstances, nor does it teach the same thing about climate change. Pope Francis’s encyclical, while unequivocal in its position on climate change, is not a binding article of faith or an assertion of any concrete kind of dogma, at least from a practical environmental perspective.

So how could these three things—one of which is never allowed and always opposed, one of which is generally opposed but sometimes allowed, and one of which the theology is only just being developed and for which there is no real binding and incumbent moral duty placed upon Catholics—be “on the same level?” The phraseology itself makes no sense. These are dissimilar issues with divergent necessary moral and philosophical considerations.

So, Who Are These ‘Leaders,’ Anyway?

Well, sometimes headlines are bad, right? Maybe we can sort of jury-rig an understanding here and just move on. Does the article describe anything that could justify this rather outrageous header? Let’s look:

Opposition to abortion and the death penalty have long been cardinal beliefs for the Roman Catholic church, whose faithful make up about a quarter of all Americans.

What if fighting climate change becomes an equally passionate issue in parishes nationwide?

The foremost group of Catholic leaders in the U.S. is ramping up a campaign to do just that, urging priests and congregations from San Diego to Atlanta to think about global warming as a sanctity-of-life issue.

Well, here’s an empirical and verifiable statement: is the “foremost group of Catholic leaders in the U.S.” getting ready to launch a “campaign” to make climate change as “equally passionate [an] issue” as abortion and the death penalty?

Well, no, not really at all. The impetus for these wild claims seems to come from a few different sources, and none of the sources justify the claims. The first is from a layperson:

‘It’s clear that climate change is a pro-life issue,’ said Sarah Spengeman with Catholic Climate Covenant, a nonprofit formed in 2006 by leading U.S. bishops to work on ecological issues.

‘People are being killed by climate change already, so it’s very core to our beliefs.’

She added: ‘If we want to leave our children an inhabitable earth, if we have a responsibility to the unborn, we have a responsibly to act on climate.’

Now, you can agree with Spengeman, or you can disagree with her—and in the interest of full disclosure I’ll go ahead and say that I’m in the latter camp—but in either case two things immediately come to mind. The first is that Sarah Spengeman is not, in any really arguable way, a “Catholic leader.”

The second is, do you think Spengeman is arguing that these two issues are on the same level? I strongly doubt it. In any event, a responsible reporter might have asked her as much, particularly if his story depends upon such an equation. To his credit, Smith’s next example packs a bit more weight:

In San Diego, Bishop Robert McElroy said he ranks abortion and global warming as his two most pressing issues.

‘Climate change and the environment in general really have to do with the continuation of life on our planet, and thus we really have to come to grips with the fact that we are depleting the resources of the created order at such a rate that humanity won’t be able to survive unless we change the patterns that we’ve been engaged in,’ he said.

Again, you can agree or disagree with the Most. Rev. Bishop McElroy on the merits of present climate science and future climate projections. Elsewhere, the bishop does seem to place the incumbent moral weight of pro-liferism and environmentalism on relatively equal footing.

Regardless, even if McElroy is correct, at this point in Smith’s article we’ve gone from “Catholic leaders” to “Catholic leader.” The former sounds a bit more authoritative; the latter, less like a news story.