The pope as philosopher: faith, climate change and public reason

The latest papal encyclical provides a lesson in public discourse. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

In his landmark encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis wrote the following words: “I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

In doing so, the pope provides the tone for a papal encyclical unique in its ambition to address not just Catholics but all of humanity.

Aside from the importance of the pope’s focus on climate change as a moral issue – something we moral philosophers have been pointing out for a long while – I find the encyclical notable for its example of how reason ought to be incorporated into public discourse.

Public reason

Maintaining a free and open society along with equitable restraints that allow for its sustained existence is not a laissez-faire proposition. It requires the guidance of reason to inform our political and legal policies as well as our economic priorities. The development of tolerant laws and political procedures are means by which we are spared the more vicious aspects of nature – not least of all human nature. This same commitment to reason is essential for responsible public discourse meant to foster social cooperation in the context of cultural and ideological differences.

Public reason is a vital philosophical component of modern democratic liberalism. The idea of public reason is detectable in the 18th-century philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant and was developed more fully in the 20th-century writings of philosopher John Rawls. It signals a discursive commitment to the neutral framework of reason when discussing ideologically charged topics on the public stage.

Public reason requires that our arguments be framed for other free and equal citizens in ways they are capable of understanding, if not agreeing with, regardless of private religious or parochial commitments. This means, for instance, that when arguing about basic issues of justice, including those arising from anthropogenic climate change, one ought to resist arguing in religious terms. One may acknowledge such commitments, to be sure, but if religious arguments are invoked, then public reason would have them be of a nature easily translatable into secular terms identifiable by all.

Moreover, in order to avoid the more obvious traps of partisan posturing, public reason would have reasonable citizens reference the findings of established scientific consensus, when such consensus is available (as it is on global warming and climate change), in the course of public discourse. It may be the case that some individuals disagree with any given scientific consensus, but responsible discourse demands that they at least acknowledge its existence before attempting to explain their own disagreement. Political figures owe their constituents this minimal level of discursive decency if society is to fulfill its function as a system of fair cooperation over time among free and equal citizens.

In one of the highest teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope has managed to publicly address the global community in terms that all reasonable people, not just members of the Catholic faith, can understand. Crucially, the pope relied on established science to do so.

The pope argues correctly, and independently of Catholic theology, that climate change gravely impacts the world’s poorest, who are least responsible for the problem. It is this reality that places a moral pressure on the developed world, most responsible for climate change, to address the problem. This moral understanding is common to both Catholic and secular conceptions of social justice.

The encyclical goes on to argue, again correctly, that present rates of fossil fuel-based consumption are not sustainable. Indeed, the pope, as one would expect, makes the connection between the above moral concerns, the scientific reality and the consequences for Catholic teaching in a way clearly understandable to reasonable people of all faiths and none.

Reason to bridge gaps

Pope Francis is not the only public person of faith capable of speaking inclusively in the diverse civic sphere. The atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a member of the political science department at Texas Tech University, is an evangelical Christian and powerful public communicator on climate change. Dr Hayhoe’s ability to acknowledge the concerns of her fellow Christians, explain the established science clearly and consistently connect theological concepts to the need for action on climate change has earned her a place on Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. What makes Hayhoe so appealing across diverse ideological segments of society is her ability to acknowledge differences while emphasizing the inclusive framework of science and reason.

It isn’t surprising that political conservatives like Rick Santorum, James Inhofe and Jeb Bush were unhappy with the pope’s recent encyclical on the environment. We should compare the examples of public reason provided by Pope Francis and Katharine Hayhoe with the more divisive ideological framing of those political figures who hypocritically seek to dismiss the papal encyclical as a religious intrusion into politics while willfully ignoring both the consensus of science and the common good of informed public discourse in a modern democratic society.

We are an ideologically diverse species living on a planet of rich, increasingly threatened, ecological diversity. The survival of the former ultimately depends on the flourishing of the latter. Despite this critical fact, we, as an intelligent species, seem incapable so far of mustering the collective will to preserve the very environmental space needed for our own existence. Unless we find the means to work together across our many comprehensive religious, cultural and political divides, our tenure on this planet will be brief.