Why Pope Francis and the Church Treat Climate Change as a Moral Issue

Last month, NPR (National Public Radio) held a workshop for energy and environment reporters in Chicago. I was invited to be on a panel titled “The Environment as a Moral Question” and outline Catholic teaching on ecology and climate change. Here are some excerpts of my address:

Catholic Social Teaching

In order to frame my remarks, it’s important to first outline Catholic Social Teaching (CST). The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Catholic Social Teaching as a body of key magisterial documents that together “propose principles for reflection; provide criteria for judgment; [and] give guidelines for action” (2423). These magisterial documents include papal encyclicals, like Laudato Si, and, according to William J. Byron, S.J. CST, generally contain ten themes: Human Dignity, Respect for Human Life, Association, Participation, Preferential Protection for the Poor and Vulnerable, Solidarity, Stewardship, Subsidiarity, Human Equality and the Common Good.

Stewardship

The CST principle of stewardship is rooted in the biblical insights that creation is intrinsically good and that humanity has a vocation to “cultivate and care for” creation on behalf of the loving Creator (Genesis 1, 2:15). While this principle uniquely informs Catholic teaching on climate change, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out that “the Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine.”

In light of this insight, the Catholic Church recognizes that ecological degradation compromises all aspects of CST. As Pope John Paul II said in 1990, “We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations” (no. 6). In particular, the Church is aware that environmental harm especially compromises the commitments to protect human life (and dignity) and exercise a preferential option for the poor, who are usually disproportionately and unjustly impacted by damage to creation. As Pope Benedict XVI observed in 2009, “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa” (no. 51). In sum, then, as Pope John Paul II insisted in 1990, “the ecological crisis is a moral issue” for the Catholic Church (no. 15).

Catholic Teaching on Climate Change

Based on Catholic teaching regarding creation, and in view of the congruence between faith and science, the Catholic Church for the last twenty five years has recognized climate change as a moral issue. In 1981, a committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference – forerunner to the modern U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – published a statement on energy that acknowledged the heat-trapping property of carbon dioxide and prophetically warned that “it would be the height of folly to tamper in ignorance with the ecology of the entire planet” (p. 15. As an aside, updates to this document have recently been proposed by a group of leading Catholic theologians. See “Catholic Moral Traditions and Energy Ethics for the Twenty-First Century” and related summaries here).

In his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II lamented that the “’greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs … The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands” (no. 6).

In 2001, the USCCB published a pastoral statement titled Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good. There the Bishops declared, “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.”

Between 2007 and 2013, Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly addressed climate change as a moral issue. He asked, “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change . . . ?” He insisted that “particular attention to climate change [is a] matter of grave concern for the entire human family.” And he asserted that “the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.”

Pope Francis

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’ve spent so much time reviewing Pope Francis’ predecessors rather than focusing on Francis. He is, after all, the “man of the hour” so-to-speak when it comes to the Catholic Church, ecology, and climate change. The reason is that there’s an incorrect – and dangerous – narrative which claims that Francis’ attention to climate change is an unorthodox break from traditional Catholic teaching. I say dangerous because that narrative has been used by his detractors – many of whom admired John Paul II and Benedict XVI – to downplay Francis’ teaching on climate change. Although there are certainly differences between Francis, Benedict XVI, and John Paul II, it is important to recognize and emphasize that their common concern for climate change as a moral issue is one, unbroken constancy that cannot be discarded as radical.

What, then, of Laudato Si? What impact can the document have on contemporary debates about climate change? In my last few minutes, I would like to quickly highlight three possible contributions. The first is the notion of what Francis calls integral ecology. This term names the interconnectedness of all creation and, as such, highlights two insights that can help shape responses to climate change as a moral issue. First, all aspects of human welfare depend on ecological flourishing. Thus to the extent that we are committed to human life, health, dignity, and material well-being, we must uphold the integrity of creation. Second, the interconnectedness of creation requires that solutions to complex problems attend to relevant systems – both human and non-human.

In relation to Francis’ attention to systems, the second insight of Laudato Si’ that can shape responses to climate change as a moral issue is the need for just public policies. The CST principle of subsidiarity insists that issues should be dealt with at the lowest possible but highest necessary level of society. Guided by subsidiarity, Pope Francis highlights “how weak international political responses have been” to climate change mitigation and adaptation needs. Additionally, he insists that “enforceable international agreements are urgently needed to address climate change” (54, 173).

In light of Francis’ recognized need for climate change mitigation and adaptation policies, a third insight of Laudato Si is the importance of just energy policies. The pope writes:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the less harmful alternative or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition (165).

Energy policy will obviously be in the international spotlight at the December COP21 meeting in Paris. Ahead of that, however, the USCCB’s faith-based support for a national carbon pollution standard and the Green Climate Fund seem especially important. This is because many experts agree that the strength of any agreement at COP21 will likely be shaped in part by the strength of American support for low-carbon energy.

Conclusion

I hope that my remarks have helped frame climate change as a moral issue from the perspective of the Catholic Church. Although Catholic teaching on climate change is by no means new, Pope Francis’ popularity and emphasis on the issue have provided an extraordinary opportunity for the Catholic Church to help shape public climate change discourse by framing it is as a moral issue. The Catholic Climate Covenant seeks to help shape that conversation in the U.S. by sharing Catholic teaching, and I hope we can continue to be a resource for secular media moving forward. Thank you!