Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical on climate change (“Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home”) was issued in Rome on Thursday, June 18. The 192-page document addresses not only the Catholics of the world but all people, calling in vigorous moral and religious terms for everyone to care for the planet. He calls for science and religion to work together.
Issued six months in advance of the UN-sponsored talks this fall in Paris, the encyclical places the Pope and the Catholic Church officially and squarely on the side of the scientists who have proven that human activity is the main cause of the global warming we are now experiencing. The Pope calls for serious and immediate action to address climate change and other environmental crises. The encyclical addresses issues of water stress, biodiversity, pollution, the declining quality of life, economic inequality, and more.
The Pope has also taken to social media, tweeting short, pithy statements such as “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Many quotes form the encyclical will be used over the coming years to help persuade those of religious faith to join in common action with “every person,” saying that “the environment is a common patrimony of all humanity.”
While the Pope in some places argues against the wasteful and greedy actions of the economies of developed countries, in other places he lays the blame on a more generalized “human selfishness.” The encyclical says “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.” This lets the fossil fuel industry, responsible for much of the greenhouse gas emissions at present and over the last two hundred years, partially off the hook.
Republican presidential candidates and right-wing talking heads have been quick to condemn the Pope and to reject his moral leadership on this issue. Jeb Bush, who converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, said religion “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” He continued, “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” Right-wing pontificator Michael Savage said on his radio program that the Pope “is a danger to the world.” Savage claims that “the Pope is a Marxist” and that he is “a wolf in pope’s clothing; a stealth Marxist in religious garb.” Rick Santorum, another Catholic presidential candidate, also distanced himself from the Pope’s teaching, as soon as a version of the encyclical was leaked on Tuesday.
Many from the climate movement welcome the Pope’s active engagement on these issues. Naomi Klein, on Democracy Now, says that “A lot of the language of the climate justice movement has just been adopted by the Pope.” Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pointed out that it is “no longer acceptable” to deny climate science. Sanders goes on to say that “Pope Francis’ powerful message on climate change should change the debate around the world and become a catalyst for the bold actions needed to reverse global warming,” Sanders said in a statement. “The pope helps us all see how those with the least among us will fare the worst from the consequences of climate change.”
While some U.S. Catholics and most Republicans reject the idea of science-based policy on climate change, the encyclical is likely to have a big impact around the world. Heavily Catholic countries, like the Philippines, are already seeing significant climate change demonstrations and calls for action. Father Edwin Gargiguez of the Philippines, a leader of environmental campaigns in that country, says that “If it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to benefit from its wreckage; a growing global movement to divest from fossil fuels takes this ethos to heart.” The Pope’s advocacy will also accelerate the process of developing interfaith environmental coalitions.
The Pope says, “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges.”
The Pope, while acknowledging the role and conclusions of scientific study, grounds his arguments in the Bible, the religious teaching of the Catholic Church, and various statements by previous popes. He notes that “my predecessor Benedict XVI likewise proposed ‘eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.'”
The encyclical goes on: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”
Continuing, the encyclical notes that many of the problems caused by climate change will disproportionally affect the poor, and that Catholics are called to address this injustice. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.” It goes on: “Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”
Condemning aspects of the capitalism responsible for much of the environmental problems humanity faces, though it is ascribed to the “technological paradigm.” The Pope says that, “in the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule”.
Critics note, correctly, that the Vatican has not yet divested its considerable funds from the fossil fuel industry, and that while the Pope is progressive on many issues including climate, the Catholic Church continues to be backward on issues of reproductive health, women’s choice, same sex marriage, and other issues.
Nonetheless, Laudato Si represents contribution to the global movement to address climate change, which much unite religious believers and denominations with scientists, citizen activists, unions and working class communities, and many environmental struggles and organizations.