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The moral – and political – force of Pope Francis on climate

As a geopolitical figure, the pope has urged the West to combat global poverty and preserve the environment. Tony Gentile/Reuters

When popes make pronouncements on religious matters, one billion Catholics listen. When popes talk about social issues, there is the potential to bring a larger audience into international debate. When a current pope, like Francis, however, attempts to bring together both religious and social issues into a moral discussion about public policy, there is bound to be controversy.

This is the uncomfortable place in which Pope Francis finds himself after tackling climate change. His encyclical “Laudato Si’” (Praised Be) on ecology has no religious binding force on anyone, but it has the potential to raise geopolitical awareness of the developing crisis and to put forward solutions to stem what some believe is the coming, inevitable destruction of the Earth. In this, he’s building on his predecessors’ actions on environment.

Building on the legacy of former popes and his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. Jeffrey Bruno/Aleteia, CC BY-SA

When environmental issues began to move beyond acute local problems to a growing international crisis, Pope John Paul II began to preach about the need to protect the Earth.

Already in 1979 (one year into his papacy), he began to mention such issues philosophically and broadly in his writings. But it was at the World Day of Peace in 1990 that he singled out the depletion of the ozone layer as more than a scientific finding. Indeed, he called “the ecological crisis…a moral issue.” (emphasis in the original) He saw the emerging crisis as a just reason to invoke the moral consciences of local, state and international bodies to accept their part in creating environmental damage and to reverse it.

Pope Benedict XVI, known as the “Green Pope” went even further. Benedict approached environmental concerns from a moral perspective as well, but broadened his distress to include the “degradation” of the Earth by demanding “responsible stewardship.”

He decried inadequate public policies and the unbridled pursuit of money, which he believed threatened creation. On a number of occasions, Benedict, who was pope from 2005 to 2013, preached that the environment must be protected in the present by wealthy states acting in solidarity with poorer areas of the world. Doing this, he said, would save those who will inhabit the Earth in the future.

Throughout his papacy, Benedict called on individuals to care for creation. He urged society to repair its relationship with nature and to provide food for all. He preached that peace is predicated on the protection of the environment: the need for governments to develop joint and sustainable strategies for energy and its redistribution.

Benedict supported research for solar energy, the management of forests, more equal access to natural resources and a focus on how to deal with climate change.

To do less, Benedict claimed, was to harm human coexistence, to betray human dignity and to violate the rights of citizens to live in a safe environment.

Transcending debates

Francis has built on the legacy of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who preached about the responsibility of people to care for God’s creation. He is also following the teaching of former popes who have viewed the environmental crisis through a moral lens.

This pope, however, has gone beyond raising awareness, making speeches and emphasizing the coming climate change crisis.

By issuing an encyclical that deals strictly with the environment, Francis has used his religious position to call on everyone to be the protectors of God’s gifts. And, as a geopolitical actor who rules the sovereign state of the Vatican, he has added a new, urgent reason to stave off the degradation of the Earth for political reasons as well.

He has framed environmental issues in a new way – by looking at their economic consequences in a social justice context.

Known as the Green Pope, Benedict argued for protecting creation on moral grounds. paullew/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The pope’s environmental interests transcend the international controversy between scientists, economists and politicians over claims that climate change will bring about quality-of-life problems for those who have no options to cope with its potential effects.

Francis has preached that “the human family has received a common gift from God — it is nature. And he has said that the protection of creation serves as a "horizon of hope” against greed, arrogance, domination, manipulation and the exploitation of the Earth as well as the rights of people, their dignity and human rights.

In making this point, Pope Francis equates the protection of nature with the protection of human rights and claims that governments and societies secure both by safeguarding the gift of creation for all, especially the most vulnerable.

It should come as no surprise, then, that he would take a social justice approach to climate change.

Pope Francis spent most of his time in ministry in Argentina working among liberation theologians who believed that the Church should play an active, or even a violent, political role in removing and replacing the “structures of sin” that harm society.

Although he has rejected the methods of liberation theologians to make social change, the current pope has been influenced by the movement’s concern for the elimination of poverty as a basis for social justice and human rights.

Social justice

Even before release of the encyclical letter, controversy has already begun to appear.

In the United States, Rick Santorum, the Catholic former senator from Pennsylvania, said that the pope should “leave science to the scientists” and not get involved in the climate change debate. Prolife supporters were concerned that the pope would give fodder to those who might advocate for population control.

And yet, the pope’s encyclical appears to transcend such fears and instead serves as an attempt to reconcile science and religion through the moral imperative to pursue social justice for all people.

His views are not political, or ideological, but will inevitably be interpreted by liberal and conservative public officials alike who wish to legitimize their specific approaches to public policy. Francis’ encyclical, instead, is meant to be a moral exhortation to save the earth for rich and poor; young and old, and everyone who inhabits this planet.

Taken in this context, then, “Laudato Sii” can serve as a starting point and a way to move the climate control debate beyond national borders and private interests into international discourse for the common good.

Francis will also use his moral leadership position to augment his writings by preaching, travels and media relations, just as his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI did in the past. This new pope, however, will use social media too! He has embraced cyber resources and can be expected to reach a worldwide audience on environmental problems by publicizing his views on both Facebook and Twitter.

Francis expects government and society to accept the responsibility to protect the Earth for those who cannot do it by themselves. He believes that such public policies are a step toward peaceful coexistence and the common good.

Just this past week, the leaders of seven large industrialized democracies (G-7) seemed to move in that direction as well. They issued a joint political statement calling for a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a critical point of discussion that will also be taken up at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in the fall of 2015.

It is most likely, therefore, that the pope’s encyclical will serve to give the G-7 agreement moral credibility and heightened publicity now and, in the not-too-distant future, serve as the basis for a moral conversation about the role of climate change, its impact on the poor, and the need for social justice in the global environmental debate.

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