One of the most familiar theological notions to millennial Catholics is likely that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes, 4). Although there are numerous examples of how the Church continues to do this, one of the most recent—and poignant—occurred earlier this month in Rome. There, the Vatican held an environmental sustainability conference that coincidentally coincided with two new climate change reports. Taken together, these events illustrate how Catholic millennials are called to discerningly respond to pressing contemporary social challenges such as climate change.
Climate Change Assessment Reports
On Tuesday, May 6, the U.S. Global Change Research Program published the Third National Climate Assessment. The report, described as “the authoritative and comprehensive report on climate change and its impacts in the United States,” details the science of climate change and the many adverse impacts that this reality is currently having on American society (for a visual overview of the report, see “National Climate Assessment: 15 arresting images of climate change now and in the pipeline.” These negative effects include, but are not limited to: more frequent severe weather events, rising sea levels, increased drought, water stresses, agricultural difficulties, higher disease incidents, and adverse economic pressures. Although the report recognizes that “there is still time to act to limit the amount of change and the extent of damaging impacts,” it stresses that “climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”
Then on Monday, May 12, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and University of California, Irvine released a new report which found that “a rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appears to be in an irreversible state of decline, with nothing to stop the glaciers in this area from melting into the sea.” Based on this, the report predicts that the melting of these glaciers alone—which is recognized as related to anthropogenic climate change—could raise global sea levels by as much as four feet in the coming centuries.
Vatican Sustainability Conference
In response to such reports about the science and consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the Church highlights the need for prudence described by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theoloigae as the cardinal virtue of “right reason applied to action.” In particular, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declares:
In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed. Significant levels of scientific consensus—even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious—justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers. In other words, if enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind’s well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action.
Although Aquinas emphasizes the fundamental need for prudence in all practical reasoning about action, he stresses that prudence is “help[ed] and perfect[ed]” by counsel understood as consultation with wise persons. Given this, and in light of the Church’s use of prudence in its on-going response to climate change, it is not surprising that the Vatican recently concluded an interdisciplinary environmental sustainability conference.
Between May 2 and May 6, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences held a joint conference titled Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility. There, the Church brought together dozens of top scientists and economists to reflect on anthropogenic climate change and other pressing environmental challenges (for in-depth accounts of the conference proceedings, see the reports from Daniel J. Misleh, Executive Director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, and Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times reporter and Dot Earth columnist).
Based on this counsel, the Vatican Academies prudentially concluded in their Final Conference Statement that, among other things:
- “Today we have changed our natural environment to such an extent that scientists are redefining the current period as the Age of the Anthropocene, that is to say an age when human action, through the use of fossil fuels, is having a decisive impact on the planet. If current trends continue, this century will witness unprecedented climate changes and ecosystem destruction that will severely impact us all.”
- “The massive fossil fuel use at the heart of the global energy system deeply disrupts the Earth’s climate and acidifies the world’s oceans.”
- “Energy systems can be made much more efficient and much less dependent on coal, petrol and natural gas to avoid climate change, protect the oceans, and clean the air of coal-based pollutants.”
- “We have the innovative and technological capability to be good stewards of Creation. Humanity needs urgently to redirect our relationship with nature by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals so as to promote a sustainable pattern of economic development and social inclusion.”
- “Today we need a relationship of mutual benefit: true values should permeate the economy and respect for Creation should promote human dignity and wellbeing.”
The crisis of anthropogenic climate change is one that is rapidly and starkly challenging all millennials of faith and goodwill. In response, Catholic millennials have an opportunity—and responsibility—to apply the insights of both Gaudium et Spes and Aquinas in order to discern and advocate for prudent climate change mitigation and adaptation responses that are guided by wise counsel and inspired by the Gospel. The recent Vatican conference on environmental sustainability provides one macro-level example of this process, and Catholic millennials should thus seek to emulate this example in whatever ways they are able.