Pope Francis’ New Encyclical: He Writes about Global Warming, and That’s Okay

pope francis acquisiton picture cropped-1The Pope’s hot-off-the-press encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You), in full continuity with his unconventional personal style, is exciting for some, but disconcerting for others.  Even before it was published, many were denouncing the Pope’s “climate encyclical” as being beyond the papal purview.

Former Senator Rick Santorum – a Catholic and presidential candidate – expressed his concern this way: “The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” (quote from npr.org)

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma put it even more bluntly: “The Pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours. I am not going to talk about the Pope. Let him run his shop, and we’ll run ours.” (quote from npr.org)

I have just finished reading the encyclical cover-to-cover, so I can say first-hand that it is an inspiring document. My sincere hope is that those who disagree with the Pope’s position on climate change will not let that prevent them from reading his letter with an open heart and mind. The encyclical is a marvelous collection of centuries of theological and moral wisdom: it would be a true shame for anyone to deprive themselves what it has to offer because of a negative disposition.

1. The encyclical speaks about much more than global warming.

The entire document is actually a theologically and philosophically based critique of postmodern culture offered from the perspective of the environmental crisis. While he does specifically mention global warming as one of several worrying environmental problems, the overriding message of the encyclical is a call for Christians and non-Christians alike to make fundamental changes to their worldview. It is a call to conversion.

St. Francis of Assisi, whose love for nature is cited in the encyclical.
St. Francis of Assisi, whose love for nature is cited in the encyclical.

Some people may be perplexed that the Pope would dedicate an entire encyclical to the environment instead of addressing other more pressing moral concerns. In my opinion, the Pope’s choice of topic shows impressive savvy. He knows that many  people shut down and clam up when the Church teaches about things like homosexuality, contraception, or abortion. So, instead of going right for those issues, he chose to begin with a theme that is near and dear to the hearts of many: the state of the environment.

A recurring theme is his appeal to re-establish a proper relationship with all creation, especially with our fellow human beings. If we are to resolve the ecological crisis, we have to do more than treat the symptoms: we have resolve the underlying illness which is the consumeristic, materialistic, self-centered, and wasteful attitude that pervades postmodern society. The same selfish attitude that leads people to abort unborn babies leads them to destroy the environment for financial profit. In paragraph 120, he specifically points out that true concern for the environment cannot coexist with the depreciation of human life.

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? 

2. The Pope is not invading the realm of science.

In response to Rick Santorum’s worry about the Church “getting it wrong on science” again, I would say that the Pope is not claiming to pronounce scientific truth, nor is he telling scientists how to do their job. Rather, he is simply applying the principles of Catholic social doctrine to current situation of the world. He has informed his understanding of the world’s situation with scientific research, and he has just as much a right to do that as any other person. Just because he is a spiritual leader does not preclude him from enriching his spiritual teaching by looking to the scientific world. And just because the Church has “gotten it wrong” on scientific issues before does not mean that she should be paralyzed by the fear of doing it again.

Pope Francis' position on the environment is consistent with Pope Emeritus Benedict's.
Pope Francis’ position on the environment is consistent with Pope Benedict’s.

There is certainly debate on global warming, but those who do not have the possibility of studying the matter scientifically must rely on those who do. If scientists are split on the issue, the non-scientist must rely on the overall consensus. This is what Pope Francis has done in regards to global warming:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming climatic system…It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations of the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases…released mainly as a result of human activity. (Par. 23)

Even as he accepts this consensus, he is respectful of the ongoing debate and withholds from forcing others to accept it. He acknowledges the fact that “different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions,” and he goes on to state that “on many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” (cfr. paragraphs 60 and 61)

3. The Pope is allowed to make informed prudential judgments and direct is teaching accordingly.

In response to Senator Inhofe’s objection that “the Pope ought to stay with his job”, I would suggest that he has a mistaken view of the Pope’s job. As leader of the Roman Catholic Church, it is the Pontiff’s responsibility to instruct on the principles of Catholic doctrine and their application to particular circumstances. Such teaching requires prudential judgment on his part, something to which he is completely entitled as the spiritual leader of more than a billion people.

St. John Paul II is frequently cited in the encyclical. (CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka)
St. John Paul II’s teaching on conservation is frequently cited in the encyclical. (CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka)

In this encyclical, he is applying Catholic social doctrine to the current environmental crisis. He has chosen to inform his understanding of this crisis with the scientific consensus regarding global warming, and he has every right to make such a prudential judgment.

Additionally, Sen. Inhofe should remember that Pope Francis is not American, so the global warming issue is not as heavily politicized for him as it is for Americans. He cannot be faulted for talking about an issue of common concern to the whole world that happens to have political implications in the US.

Conclusion

Laudato Si’ is a beautiful work that goes far beyond the polarizing topic of global warming, so, regardless of one’s stance on the issue, the encyclical is a treasury of theological and philosophical wisdom. It not only offers the world valuable guidelines for solving the ecological crisis, but it also offers incredibly enriching advice for each of us to live more peaceful and happy lives. It is a call for us to slow down, re-establish the proper relationship with the world, and open ourselves to God’s love.

Ultimately, the environment deserves our care because it is a gift from God and a manifestation of his love.

The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. (Par. 84)

Instead of wasting energy on polemics, let’s focus on the wisdom that the Pope offers, and work together to heal the selfish postmodern disorders that are not only tearing people apart but also the very world that they inhabit.

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