Back in July 2018, Cardinal Gerhard Müller said that Catholics can safely ignore the Pope’s efforts to create an environmental conscientiousness in the Church. In what I can only describe as one of the silliest and most dangerous positions I’ve ever seen a cardinal publicly express, Müller told The Australian, “Environmental policy is nothing [sic] to do with faith and morals. Those issues are for politicians and for people to vote for the party they agree with.” In other words, climate change is really nothing for bishops to worry about and that Catholics do not owe the Pope obedience on the issue. Instead, climate change should be left to politicians, scientists, and voters’ individual preferences. Unfortunately, this statement is just one of many examples of right-wing Catholics refusing to engage the issue.
I refuse to entertain Müller’s contention later in the interview that the Pope cares too little about preventing schisms or focusing our eyes on the Word of God. I read too many of the Pope’s daily homilies and addresses to take such an absurd accusation seriously. Give me a minute to find my eyes; they rolled somewhere across the room.
A Game-Changing Encyclical
Politicians and scientists in general clearly disagree with Müller, given how positively they received Laudato Si’ and how desperate they are to increase public awareness. Some even go as far as to say that Pope Francis has revived a popular ecological consciousness. I read a lot—maybe too much—of info on climate change. (Which means I often don’t sleep well at night.) It has astounded me to see the number of times that an entirely research- or policy-based document has invoked the Pope’s 2015 encyclical on the environment. (As a reminder to Cardinal Müller, encyclicals are still an authoritative form of Magisterial teaching.)
Even the introductory text Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know ends with a call to heed the Pope’s prophetic plea. (As an aside, I wholeheartedly recommend Joseph Romm’s brilliant little book. I’ve not found a better intro to climate science yet.) Suddenly, faith and ecology are coming together at the same table.
The scientific and political communities have been remarkably grateful to the Pope for his work. For years, researchers and advocates have lamented that religious people were shockingly indifferent to environmental issues. Indeed, until 2015, I was one of them. Laudato Si’ has unexpectedly done much of the work to change that phenomenon. Of course, this is part of the role of the Church’s social teaching. It encourages the formation of our consciences under the watchful eye of the Holy Spirit. It examines our current, very human, problems and guides us to find a divinely-inspired answer.
No, bishops are not scientists or politicians. Neither are they social workers, therapists, community organizers, medical advocates, or lawyers. But the Church still must speak on the moral issues they all face. No realm of human thought or activity is untouched by the Gospel. No area of our lives or problem in our world is incompatible with the Church’s proclamation. Faith and reason learn from one another. A conversation between the two on ecology has begun. Today, reason has taught faith that the world is in desperate need of physical healing—and fast, if it’s to be healed at all. Faith has taught reason that humanity must recover itself before it can heal its world.
That’s Just the Pope’s Two Pence
Cardinal Müller seems to think that the Pope’s repeated calls for a human ecology are just his opinions on environmentalism. I really have to wonder how Müller came to this conclusion, since when the Church teaches something, we owe it our obedience. Popes and bishops since at least Leo XIII have regularly weighed in on topics like the global economic and political orders, medicine, wages, jobs, and education. Since at least John XXIII, the Holy See has advocated for a global system capable of addressing international problems. Does Müller think we can ignore papal pronouncements on these topics as well?
The Church’s social teaching comprises a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the Church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the whole of what has been revealed by Jesus Christ. This teaching can be more easily accepted by men of good will, the more the faithful let themselves be guided by it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2422)
And what does the Church’s doctrine on the environment, “with the assistance of the Holy Spirit,” teach us?
[The earth] cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. (Laudato Si’, para. 2)
However, Müller encourages us to ignore the Church’s teaching. He says that environmental policies are unrelated to faith and morals. To him, addressing our changing climate belongs to the political realm. Astonishing! The cardinal apparently believes that truth and facts, right and wrong, have nothing to do with politics and science. Apparently, God has nothing to say about care for creation. Instead, Müller tells us that people are free “to vote for the party they agree with.” For a man with the theological credentials of Müller to say such a thing beggars belief. It’s a relief that he is saying such patently relativist nonsense as the former head of the CDF.
Listen to How Reason Informs Faith
For the splendor of truth that John Paul II spoke of to shine forth, reason and faith need to have honest conversations. They need to be able to tell each other their discoveries and insights. So many of our modern ailments derive from faith and reason miscommunicating, or failing to speak at all. Ecology has not been immune to this sad phenomenon.
The scientific community is confident, based on the best available data in every field, that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity, specifically greenhouse gas emissions. This is in addition to all the other destruction humanity is causing in the oceans, atmosphere, soil, and biosphere. Satellite technology allows for mapping of the global temperatures, sea level, sea and land ice, and carbon dioxide concentration (counted in parts per million or PPM). For decades, it has been increasingly obvious to researchers in practically every scientific field that climate change is real and dangerous, with far-reaching consequences. There is an almost universal scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels, land degradation, deforestation, and other human activities are causing the problem.
Only a willfully blind person—or one with ulterior motives, as in the case of fossil fuel advocates—can ignore these well-established facts. You might as well deny the water cycle or the ozone layer. As with the theory of evolution, there is no real scientific debate about whether it’s true. Humor me, but you might need to read it again: there is no real scientific debate about whether it’s true.
We’re as sure as sure gets in science, folks. I’m liable to go hoarse repeating this so much. The last thing we need is a horrendously malinformed cardinal telling bishops to be quiet about our suffering common home. People are literally dying because of the first world’s ecological sins. Ignoring this is tantamount to discarding the scientifically established consequences of smoking tobacco. (As an occasional pipe smoker and ex-cigarette addict, I’m quite familiar with those, too.)
Ecological Sin is Real
The Pope has announced that the Catechism will be updated to reflect the developing ecological theology in the Church. Praise God. I wish it had been done long ago, but now is as good a time as any. We are on a very short timetable for solving this problem. If we fail, our kids will suffer tremendously. So will the poor across the world. It’s just that simple, and mincing words helps nobody.
Yes, we owe the Pope our obedience on ecological doctrine, like every other social doctrine. We need Catholics of all stripes (including our shepherds) to become involved in solving this and all other issues that degrade the human person. Helping the poor, caring for the destitute, protecting human life, and healing the environment are all works of mercy. They are all part of proclaiming the Gospel and necessary for creating what John Paul II called a culture of life.
When our time comes, we will be asked by the Lord if we obeyed his Church’s teachings. We will be confronted for our sins against God, our neighbors, and creation. If you laugh at the prospect of going to hell because you pollute, think about the poor family whose soil, air, and water you helped poison. See them enduring famines, wildfires, tropical storms, hurricanes, and forced migration.
They are. Right now.
You may suddenly realize God quite literally gives a damn what you do to the climate.
As for Cardinal Müller, I’m no mind-reader. Maybe he just doesn’t believe that.
Joe Dantona is a convert living in eastern Ohio. He studied political science, history, and theology. He divides his free time between entertaining his wife and kids with dad jokes and getting distracted while reading good books.