Vatican Climate Change Conference: Catholic Public Theology Takes Center Stage

In 1979, David Hollenbach, S.J. advocated for Catholic public theology that “attempts to illuminate the urgent moral questions of our time through explicit use of the great symbols and doctrines of the Christian faith.” Since then, American Catholic public theologians have, as Gonzalo Villagrán, S.J. describes, worked to accessibly bring Catholic teaching to the public square in an effort to shape dialogue and policy. Given this understanding of Catholic public theology, today’s speech from Cardinal Peter Turkson and statement from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences/Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PAS/PASS) at the Vatican climate change conference offer examples of and opportunities for effective Catholic public theology around climate change.

The Latest- Not the First or the Last

At the outset, it is worth reiterating that neither Cardinal Turkson’s address nor the PAS/PASS statement is the first example of Catholic public theology on climate change. As I have noted elsewhere, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, and several Catholic bishops’ conferences including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have recognized climate change as a moral issue and called on people of faith and goodwill to address this challenge. Additionally, as is well-known by now, Pope Francis is expected to release an encyclical on ecology later this summer, the moral weight of which many people—both religious and non-religious—believe can result in significant progress on climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. As such, today’s speech from Cardinal Turkson and statement from the PAS/PASS are the latest examples of and opportunities for Catholic public theology on climate change.

Examples of Catholic Public Theology

The speech from Cardinal Turkson and statement from PAS/PASS are both excellent examples of Catholic public theology. For example, Cardinal Turkson recognizes that effective attention to climate change must be “ground[ed] in morality” and requires “a full conversion of hearts and minds, habits and lifestyles, structures and institutions.” Towards that end, he affirms that “the world’s religions play a vital role” in facilitating this conversion and highlights ways that Catholic teaching in particular can shape the minds and hearts of “political leaders, corporate leaders, civil society, and ordinary people.” Similarly, the PAS/PASS statement insists that “finding ways to develop a sustainable relationship with nature requires not only the engagement of scientists, political leaders, educators and civil societies, but will succeed only if it is based on a moral revolution that religious institutions are in a special position to promote.” In particular, the statement asserts that “the Catholic church, working with the leadership of other religions, can take a decisive role by mobilizing public opinion.”

Opportunities for Catholic Public Theology

Although the speech from Cardinal Turkson and statement from PAS/PASS are thus examples of Catholic public theology, these resources also provide an opportunity for subsequent Catholic public theology. This is especially true for Catholic millennials, who are fluent in the technology that can quickly share Catholic teaching in the public square. So what might this look like? For one, Catholic millennials could post/share/tweet Cardinal Turkson’s speech and the PAS/PASS statement on Facebook and Twitter. In addition, they could also do the same with one (or more!) of the many articles that are covering the impact that Francis’ forthcoming encyclical could have on efforts to address climate change (e.g., National Catholic Reporter, National Catholic Reporter, Washington Post, New York Times and New York Times). Finally, if folks are really feeling ambitious, they could write an op/ed or letter to the editor of their local newspaper using the guide developed by the Catholic Climate Covenant and Ignatian Solidarity Network.


In his 2010 World Day of Peace Message, Pope Benedict XVI declared that “the Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction” (no. 12, emphasis in original). In light of this call, Catholic millennials—indeed all Catholics—should utilize the resources from today’s Vatican climate change conference as examples of and opportunities for effective Catholic public theology on climate change ahead of Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on ecology.