This past Tuesday, June 18, marked the fourth anniversary of the release of Pope Francis’s groundbreaking encyclical on care for Creation, Laudato Si’. From the very beginning of his papacy, caring for our common home has been at the center of his message and vision for the Church. In his inaugural Mass, Francis implored us all to “be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”
This vision continues to unfold in the life of the Church, despite being met with resistance in some quarters. The second part of the just-released Instrumentum Laboris (IL), or working document, for the upcoming Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region, focuses on integral ecology, emphasizing the importance of protecting and preserving nature. Deforestation and other human acts of destruction have caused great damage to the ecosystem and biodiversity in the region, affecting not only animal and plant life, but the native people and their communities, especially those who live in poverty.
While some Catholics, especially in the United States, are skeptical about the impact of human activity on the climate, the Catholic Church’s approach for centuries is to accept the findings and discoveries of the professional scientific community. Pope Francis’s approach, much like his predecessors St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is to give a Christian response to the established scientific understanding of how certain types of human activity are harming our planet.
Recently, in an address to a gathering of world leaders in finance, Francis expounded on many of the effects of the climate crisis that we are facing, and the urgency to act:
“The effects of global inaction are startling. About two weeks ago, several scientific research centres recorded the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – one of the key global causes of global warming linked to human activity – as having reached 415 parts per million, the highest level ever recorded. Around the world, we are seeing heat waves, droughts, forest fires, floods and other extreme meteorological events, rising sea levels, the emergence of diseases and further problems that are only a dire premonition of things much worse to come, unless we act and act urgently.
During your meeting today, you heard from leading climatologists and experts. Their message was clear and insistent. We need to act decisively to put an end to all emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century at the very latest, and to do even more than that. Carbon dioxide concentrations have to decline significantly to ensure the safety of our common home. You also heard that this can be accomplished at low cost by employing clean energy and improving energy efficiency.”
Unfortunately, some Catholics (very few of whom are climate scientists or have studied the data) reject the nearly-unanimous consensus that human activity has an effect on the Earth’s climate. This anti-scientific tendency exists in even more extreme forms among Catholics who embrace young-Earth creationism, geocentrism, and even flat-Earth theory.
We must remember that the Catholic Church is not anti-science. It’s simply unreasonable to believe that more than 97% of climate scientists – people who have dedicated their lives to the scientific study of the climate – are advancing research that has been deliberately skewed for ideological reasons. Naturally, the Catholic Church accepts the conclusions of the experts in the field.
This is very important for a number of reasons.
First, care for the environment is a moral issue of great significance and urgency. Pope Francis recognizes this and adds his authoritative voice to those of other advocates and world leaders that the climate crisis is the result of our behavior; behavior that we must change in order to avert a serious disaster.
Secondly, if the Catholic Church ignored or denied the significance of the climate crisis, the dialogue about how to address the issue would go on without a Catholic voice. The global community has long-recognized the threat of climate change, and many of the proposed solutions directly contradict Catholic moral doctrine. Laudato Si’, coming from a perspective rooted in the Catholic faith, has been a significant corrective to many of these proposals.
For example, in paragraph 50 of the encyclical, Pope Francis addresses the suggestion that population control is the solution to our environmental problems. He disagrees with this idea, describing it as “refusing to face the issues”:
“50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health.’ Yet ‘while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.’ To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and ‘whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.’”
Catholics who deny the established science and refuse to acknowledge the problem disqualify themselves from having a place in the discussion. Many of them tend to associate the notion of climate change with population control and the widespread distribution of contraception, or other ideas contrary to Catholic teaching. They might see the desire to address climate change as an issue of the “left,” and in doing so, they opt out of this serious global conversation.
This is unfortunate. In my work with Catholic groups focused on issues related to the environment and climate, I have found that the perspectives of those of us who approach these questions with a faith-based context are welcomed and respected by the wider community of environmental advocates. There is room for us at the table, but it is up to us to take our place.
In the four years since the release of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has become a leader in the global response to climate change and care for creation. It is essential that the wider Catholic community follows his lead.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.