As the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics and the first to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis’s recent visit drew large enthusiastic crowds in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. In Washington, he devoted more of his address to climate change than any other topic.
While the Pope also addressed issues like poverty and immigration, Church teachings on opposing abortion, contraception, and same sex marriage received only fleeting mention. And his doctrinal orthodoxy extended to women when he clearly rejected the notion of female priests.
Focusing on climate change followed the Pope’s issuance in mid-June of a sweeping and unique environmental encyclical. He described the relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment and blamed denial, apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology, and political shortsightedness. His words ranged from pastoral to political.
Relying on scientific studies rather than theological documents, he cited the burning of fossil-fuels (oil, coal, and gas) for overheating the planet and unleashing destructive and deadly storms, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other extreme weather. Pope Francis sees the emissions of greenhouse gases as primarily a result of human activity.
Humanity has changed the environment with unprecedented speed. Climate change is occurring just about every place in the world. The environment, the Pope stated, cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.
Francis warns that the world is facing widespread crop failure, economic ruin, mass migration, and the destruction of entire ecosystems. He embraced the Obama administration’s efforts to combat climate change, including the use of renewable energy such as solar, wind, and biomass. The Obama administration proposed the first greenhouse gas limits on existing power plants in US history.
The Pontiff declared that humans can adopt strategies that help preserve the planet and lessen the further degradation of the environment. Rather than attempting to settle scientific questions or replace politics, the pope encourages open and honest debate on environmental issues that cross political, scientific, business, and religious lines.
Distancing himself from centuries of theological interpretation that regarded nature with outright hostility, the Pontiff asserts that nature has value in and of itself. The “green encyclical” thereby connects with another Catholic tradition that sees the earth as a sacrament, represented in canonical terms by his own namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. At the same time, he embraces ecological insights to meet the challenges of sustainable and diversified agriculture, managing marine and forest resources, and universal access to drinking water.
The papal letter puts Francis firmly on the side of the world’s climate scientists, an overwhelming number of whom document warming of the earth and acknowledge that humankind bears responsibility for a substantial portion of the temperature rise. Climate change no longer is just a scientific issue, but increasingly a moral and ethical one too.
Pope Francis wants to enter into a dialog with all people about our common home, earth. He urges individuals, families, local communities, nations, and the international community to engage in an ecological conversation about how to address our task of caring for our common home. His call for environmental care extends not only to believers but to agnostics and atheists as well.
The fair management of the global commons presents one of the most important tasks of our time. Pope Francis sees the natural environment as a collective good, available to all and necessary to human welfare.
We do not have all the solutions needed to limit climate disruption and live sustainably. Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, for example, requires a complicated and lengthy process. The biggest question is do we have the social, political, and economic will to change?
Ralph Scharnau teaches U.S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.