Prudence and Climate Change: How the Church Can Help Our Response to Climate Science

In his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II recognized that “[t]he gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs.” At the time he delivered that message, the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) was ~350 parts per million (ppm). Since then, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded human history.

Given this alarming trend, a recently-published report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a valuable tool by which persons and communities can better understand and respond to climate change. At the same time, however, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ distinct insight about prudence vis-à-vis climate change should be seen as a necessary supplement to this new report.

IPCC’s New Report: WGII AR5

Last Monday, the IPCC released the Working Group II (WGII) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). This report, published by a working group of the IPCC’s thousands of climate scientists from more than one hundred countries, affirms many of the worst-case expectations regarding the causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. For example, the report reiterates the IPCC Working Group I AR5 finding that “It is extremely likely [i.e., known with 95-100% certainty] that human influence has been the dominant cause of the [earth’s] observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Moreover, the report affirms that despite some “uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts,” unmitigated anthropogenic climate change is causing—and will continue to cause—increased heat waves, drought, flooding, wildfires, severe weather events, glacial retreat, and widespread sea level rise.

In addition, the new report states that anthropogenic climate change is leading to food and water stresses, population displacement, adverse health conditions, increased potential for human insecurity and sociopolitical conflicts. In particular, the report notes that these adverse humanitarian consequences of climate change disproportionately impact poor and otherwise vulnerable communities. Given the disparity between historical responsibilities for anthropogenic climate change—i.e., the poor are least responsible for contributing to this phenomenon—the report confirms that, as the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference declares, climate change is “a fundamental problem of global justice.”

In light of the causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the report points out that humanity is quickly running out of time to prevent climate change from becoming irreversible. To this end, the report offers several principles for climate change mitigation and adapting efforts, including:

Adaptation planning and implementation can be enhanced through complementary actions across levels, from individuals to governments; A first step towards adaptation to future climate change is reducing vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability; Adaptation planning and implementation at all levels of governance are contingent on societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions; [ … ] Decision support is most effective when it is sensitive to context and the diversity of decision types, decision processes, and constituencies; Poor planning, overemphasizing short-term outcomes, or failing to sufficiently anticipate consequences can result in maladaptation; Limited evidence indicates a gap between global adaptation needs and the funds available for adaptation.

The Value of Prudence

Due to its unique scientific insights and thoughtful recommendations regarding mitigation and adaptation, WGII AR5 is an important contribution to the public discourse about anthropogenic climate change. At the same time, there appear to be two critiques that might be leveled against this report. The first is that the document commits Hume’s “is-ought fallacy,” wherein conclusions about what ought to be done are inferred from a particular circumstance that is. For example, someone might accept WGII AR5’s assessment of the climate science, but disagree that persons and communities ought to take particular mitigative or adaptative actions in light of it (e.g., exercise a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable). Additionally, someone might say that any mitigative or adaptative actions are unwarranted without absolute certainty regarding the anthropogenic causes and humanitarian consequences of climate change.

In response to these points, the USCCB’s Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good can provide a sort of bridge between what climate science tells us and the actions which persons and communities ought to take. The Bishops declare:

The virtue of prudence is paramount in addressing climate change…Prudence is intelligence applied to our actions. It allows us to discern what constitutes the common good in a given situation. Prudence requires a deliberate and reflective process that aids in the shaping of the community’s conscience. Prudence not only helps us identify the principles at stake in a given issue, but also moves us to adopt courses of action to protect the common good. Prudence is not, as popularly thought, simply a cautious and safe approach to decisions. Rather, it is a thoughtful, deliberate, and reasoned basis for taking or avoiding action to achieve a moral good.

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 the USCCB does not emphasize that prudence requires other moral virtues to perfect a person’s appetites towards good action, the invocation of prudence provides a way for people of faith and goodwill to move from understanding the climate science that exists to the responses that ought to be pursued. Moreover, the virtue of prudence can help environmental advocates respond to claims that there is not enough certainty about the causes and consequences of climate change to undertake mitigation and adaptation initiatives. As such, the virtue of prudence is a distinct contribution that the Catholic Church can—and must—make to supplement WGII AR5 and continue supporting public conversation about anthropogenic climate change.

Expectations and Hopes for Pope Francis’ Ecological Encyclical

Have you ever seen an aspiring theologian fist pump like Tiger Woods? You have if you were anywhere near me last Friday when the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis has begun writing an encyclical addressing environmental challenges and “the ecology of man.”

Rumors of a possible environmental encyclical have been swirling since November, when Pope Francis met with Argentinian environmentalists about water and the controversial natural gas recovery method known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). For those with more experience working on environmental issues from a Catholic perspective, however, hope for an extensive papal treatise on ecology began when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became the first pope to take the name Francis after “the poor man of Assisi” whom the Church honors as Patron Saint of Those Who Promote Ecology.

Since my initial excitement over Friday’s announcement, I have begun reflecting more on both what will likely be contained in the document as well as what I hope Francis will include. Based on my experience of working on creation care and climate change from a Catholic perspective, what follows are my own expectations and hopes for what Francis might include in the Church’s first ecological encyclical.


Since Pope John Paul II published his ecologically-groundbreaking 1990 World Day of Peace Message titled Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, the Church’s approach to creation care has consistently been defined by several core elements that I expect Francis will include in his encyclical, among them:

  • God’s on-going presence in all creation which reflects God’s incarnation.
  • Intrinsic goodness of all creation that is independent of humanity.
  • Humanity’s role as stewards of creation, invited to use its gifts without exploiting it for superfluous desires.
  • Human ecology by which the Church recognizes that the protection and promotion of human life and dignity is inexorably connected to care for all of creation.
  • Care and justice for the poor and vulnerable who are disproportionately and unjustly harmed by environmental degradation.
  • Universal destination of created goods by which all persons have a right to share in the fruits of creation.
  • Respect for private property with the recognition that it is “subordinated to the right to common use” when some people lack basic goods (Laborem Exercens, #14).
  • Protection and promotion of the common good to which the climate and natural environment are central.
  • Application of the principle of subsidiarity which calls for the lowest possible but highest necessary level of government intervention necessary to protect the common good.
  • Intergenerational solidarity that calls us to hand on to posterity a clean and habitable environment.
  • Invocation of prudence which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes as “intelligence applied to our actions” and recognizes as “paramount in addressing climate change” (Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good).
  • Recognition of anthropogenic climate change as a moral issue and the need for all people of faith and goodwill to address it as such (cf. Catholic Climate Covenant’s Catholic Teachings).


Since his election, Pope Francis has shown a willingness to address contemporary issues by courageously challenging those persons and systems that hinder the in-breaking and growth of God’s Kingdom. Given this, I have more than just a passing hope that Francis might also include the following elements in his ecological encyclical:

  • Advocacy for an economic price to be placed on greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide.
  • Commentary about how current economic systems and investment strategies foster or undermine environmental sustainability and climate stability.
  • Condemnation of industry-funded efforts to deny and/or confuse the science of anthropogenic climate change.
  • Reflections on contemporary energy issues, especially the transition to renewable energy and the controversial practice of fracking (cf. Catholic Climate Covenant’s On Energy).


In less than one year, the “Francis Effect” has instilled a sense of optimism in many people who had otherwise lost hope for the Church. As the world quickly runs out of time to address some of its most pressing ecological challenges, especially anthropogenic climate change, confirmation that Francis is working on an ecological encyclical is cause for similar hope. In the wake of Francis’ challenges to economic structures that oppress the poorest people in the world, the news of an encyclical on the environment will undoubtedly inspire even more people of faith and goodwill to finally address seriously the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. You may not quite think that this is cause for a celebratory fist pump, but Catholic environmentalists like me are suddenly filled with an energetic optimism that, I imagine, is very similar to sinking a long birdie putt to set up a final round charge in a major golf championship.

The Pope Francis Interview: Preaching the Gospel and Recovering the Consistent Life Ethic

If you haven’t yet read Robert Christian’s excellent piece in the Washington Post about Pope Francis’ interview in America Magazine, I highly recommend that you do so. It is one of the best commentaries that I have read to date on the recent interview (and I’m not just saying that because he is the editor of Millennial!).  Two things in particular stick out to me: Francis’ implicit appeal for a recovery of the consistent ethic of life and his emphasis on the need to preach the Gospel above all else.

Recovering the Consistent Ethic of Life

The first thing that strikes me about Christian’s article is his succinct iteration that, contrary to some commentary, Francis is reaffirming the Church’s “consistent ethic of life” and not downplaying the Catholic commitment to protect human life and dignity.

In their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops write:

The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues. It anchors the Catholic commitment to defend human life, from conception until natural death, in the fundamental moral obligation to respect the dignity of every person as a child of God (#40).

This message that both human life and human dignity form the foundation of all that we now call Catholic social teachings is essentially what Francis said in the interview: although the “moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent [. . . w]e cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods [. . .] it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

As Christian points out, Francis is not reducing the importance of the Catholic commitment to life and dignity, nor downplaying what many refer to as the “core” life issues. Rather, Francis is criticizing those who have become “obsessed” with reducing the fullness of Catholic Social Teaching to a handful of narrow issues, and making an appeal for the Church to recover the awareness that many contemporary social issues—from extreme poverty to climate change—threaten to compromise the Church’s commitment to protect human life and dignity. Pope Francis is essentially making a plea for Catholics to “find a new balance” of attention to issues of human life and dignity, and this is a welcome appeal to those of us who for too long have felt that our contributions to promoting the social mission of the Church on issues other than abortion, gay marriage, and artificial contraception are less urgent or important, and therefore less worthy of energy and action.

Preaching the Gospel

In addition to pointing out Francis’ implicit appeal for a recovery of the consistent ethic of life, Christian’s article highlights another theme that is central to Francis’ interview: the need for the Church to preach the Gospel message of love and mercy above all else. Throughout the interview, Francis insists that “[t]he most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” Francis believes that “from this proposition [. . .] the moral consequences then flow,” and laments that some in the Church today begin with “the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines” rather than the foundational proclamation of Jesus’ love and mercy.

Francis seems to mourn this situation not only because it causes the Church to “lock itself up in small things, in small-minded rules” and lose the fullness of the Gospel message, but also because, as Christian says, “a disproportionate focus on particular moral teachings threatens a descent into legalism, the mentality that Jesus spent so much time challenging and condemning.”

Although Christian writes that Francis’ message can be understood as directed primarily at “those who seem to ignore other social and moral issues and seemingly want to turn opposition to abortion into a litmus test that determines one’s inclusion in the Catholic community,” it is important to recognize that Francis’ message is a good reminder to all Catholics not to lose the forest of the Gospel for the trees of a particular social concern. Anybody who feels a passionate vocation to address a specific aspect of the Church’s social tradition—indeed any aspect of the Church’s tradition, e.g. liturgical, canonical, pastoral, etc.—should be encouraged to do so, but also reminded not to become disproportionately focused on their area to the exclusion of the larger Gospel message. Aware of this potential danger, Francis’ message is therefore an important reminder to all Catholics involved in any type of ministry.


As the media’s initial focus on attention-grabbing headlines begins to wane, Catholics are now left with the challenging process of reflecting more deeply on the fullness of Francis’ interview and its implications for the Church in the 21st century. Robert Christian’s recent article makes a valuable contribution to what will necessarily be a lengthy process of discernment, and his attention to both Francis’ implicit appeal for a consistent ethic of life and invitation to preach the Gospel above all else provides Catholics with two key insights that can provide entry points into deeper reflection about Francis’ extraordinary message to the Church and to the world.

Melting Ice, Mending Creation: a Catholic Approach to Climate Change

Quick: name one of your favorite Christian axioms. You know, one of the “tweetable” maxims that has developed over the two thousand year history of the Church. Is it: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you? (Mt 7:12) What about: Our hearts are restless until they rest in you? (Augustine) Maybe: If you want peace, work for justice? (Pope Paul VI)

As a so-called “cradle Catholic” with a major research interest in Catholic Social Teaching, it might surprise you to learn that one of my favorite Christian axioms is attributed to the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, who said that we must approach the world “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other” (actually, the Princeton Theological Seminary says that this may not be an exact quote, although he did “occasionally make similar remarks”). Although I think Christians, especially Catholics, need more than just the Bible in one hand—perhaps the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church—his basic point resonates deeply with me: we must be informed about both our faith and current issues in order to live as Christians “in the world,” as Barth says, and as the Church calls us (cf. Gaudium et Spes).

I begin with this vignette because I think it captures well the spirit of the 2013 Feast of St. Francis (October 4) event being organized by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, where I serve as Project Manager. The program, Melting Ice, Mending Creation: a Catholic Approach to Climate Change, utilizes a narrated Prezi presentation to explore climate change through the lens of worldwide glacial melt and using two separate but related resources: a report on the topic by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) and a TED talk by Dr. James Balog, director of the videographic Extreme Ice Survey. In essence, the project approaches the question of climate change “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” The PAS report presents the Church’s scientific and theological understanding of glacial melt caused by climate change, while Dr. Balog shares a scientist’s compelling scientific and visual evidence of the anthropogenic phenomenon.

In order to help facilitate the presentation of this year’s Feast of St. Francis event, the Coalition has published three tailored education kits with facilitator’s guides: one for parishes, one for colleges/universities, and one for youth/young adults. The kits are available for free download on the Coalition’s website along with promotional materials to help communities publicize their event. Although the resources are all free, organizers are encouraged to register events ahead of time in order to receive the free prayer cards that are part of the presentation.

In his book-length interview in 2010 titled Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that climate change “is a challenge for the Church.  She not only has a major responsibility; she is, I would say, often the only hope.  For she is so close to people’s consciences that she can move them to particular acts of self-denial and can inculcate basic attitudes in souls.”  In order for the Church to do this, however, it is first necessary that Catholics understand the gravity of the climate crisis. With the PAS report in one hand and dramatic visual evidence of human-caused climate change in the other, the 2013 Feast of St. Francis event sponsored by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change hopes to help Catholics recognize climate change as an urgent moral issue and highlight the Church’s many theological and practical resources that can help people of faith and goodwill to mitigate this pressing challenge.

Creation Care as a Tool in the New Evangelization

On June 28, 2010, the eve of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Pope Benedict XVI created the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Although much has been written about the various aspects of the New Evangelization initiative, one element of the Church’s mission that has received significantly less attention is the Church’s tradition of creation care. This is an unfortunate gap in the New Evangelization, particularly with respect to the evangelization of millennial Catholics. This is especially true since a majority of millennials are concerned about the environment, yet are also the least “religious” generation by a number of different metrics.

Given the Church’s rich tradition of caring for God’s creation, this aspect of Catholic teaching can thus serve as a valuable means by which to connect with millennial Catholics and strengthen the New Evangelization. I first heard this observation from Dr. Tobias Winright, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at St. Louis University, at A Catholic Consultation on Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States last year. In terms of utilizing the Church’s creation care tradition as a tool in the New Evangelization, the Franciscan Earth Corps project of the Franciscan Action Network—a member of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change—provides an excellent model, showing how Catholic teaching on creation can be used as an evangelizing tool with millennial Catholics.


Much has been written about what the New Evangelization is and is not. In general, however, a careful reading of key magisterial documents reveals three key aspects of the New Evangelization:

1. “The New Evangelization calls each of us to deepen our faith, believe in the Gospel message and go forth to proclaim the Gospel.” -U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), What is the New Evangelization?

2. It calls us to propose the Gospel “to those regions awaiting the first evangelization.” -Pope Benedict XVI, Homily of First Vespers on the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, 2010

3. It directs us to re-propose the Gospel to those “Catholics [who have] lost a living sense of faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church.” -Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris missio, no. 33

The third aspect of the New Evangelization has been widely recognized as perhaps the initiative’s most innovative aspect, and this element is particularly important with respect to the millennial generation.

According to a number of different metrics, the millennial generation—including millennial Catholics—is less “religious” than any other cohort. For example, the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life reports that millennials overall are generally the least likely to:

–          be “religiously affiliated”

–          identify as a “strong member” of their tradition

–          attend religious services weekly

–          read Scripture weekly

–          pray daily

–          say religion is “very important” in their lives

–          have “certain belief in God”

Millennial Catholics were no exception to this trend.

Although millennials, including Catholics, are the generation that is least inclined towards religion, a large number of millennials are deeply concerned about the envirtnoment and engaged with environmental issues. The Pew Research Center has found that:

–          36% of millennials buy organic foods

–          53% of millennials conscientiously purchase “green” products

–          69% of millennials recycle from home

Similarly, Rock the Vote found that in 2010, 69% of U.S. millennial voters were “concerned that the country is failing to take action on global warming or climate change.”

Given this strong inclination towards ecological concern and a strong disinclination towards religion, it is here that the New Evangelization might draw upon the Church’s teaching on creation in order to re-propose the Gospel to millennial Catholics. The Church has a rich tradition of creation care and attention to climate change, and those who are especially involved in the New Evangelization might use this teaching as an on-ramp to advance into deeper conversation with millennial Catholics about faith and the Gospel.

One of the most basic pedagogical techniques is to “meet people where they are,” and within the context of the New Evangelization, this could take the form of affirming a young person’s ecological concern, pointing out that the Church has a rich body of teaching on the environment, and then proceeding into other comparable areas of faith and Christian life. Pope John Paul II affirmed in his encyclical Centesimus Annus that “the Church’s social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization” (no. 54, emphasis in original), and highlighting the Church’s tradition of creation care as part of the New Evangelization can certainly be used as an extension of the insight of John Paul II in light of the current “signs of the times.”


As with any ministry, the use of creation care as a tool in the New Evangelization will likely look different depending on the particular situation, context, audience, etc. One model of how this tradition might be used to help millennial Catholics develop a deeper faith life is the Franciscan Action Network’s Franciscan Earth Corps project. Through this initiative, a local community first selects a project, charitable cause, or justice activity that is somehow tied to ecology and then registers as a chapter with Earth Corps. Examples of such activities might include urban or community gardening, hiking, advocacy work, ecological restoration, or beautification/landscaping.

Once a project has been selected and undertaken, the Earth Corps initiative then invites the group to engage in regular group reflection using themes from Franciscan spirituality. Ideally this reflection occurs after each period of work, and provides an intentional space in which group members process their experiences and come to a deeper awareness of how their work is intimately connected with their Catholic faith. For example, a group working in an urban/community garden might reflect on the Church’s recognition that the poor are most vulnerable to environmental degradation. A group involved in hiking or beautification/landscaping might reflect on the incarnational nature of Christianity and how this is particularly present in Franciscan spirituality. Groups that choose to work on a climate advocacy project could reflect on the Church’s justice tradition and/or the concept of structural sin.

In order to help facilitate spiritual reflection on a group’s environmental project, Earth Corps recommends that leaders utilize the spiritual resources available from the Franciscan Action Network. In addition, Earth Corps groups might also take advantage of the many resources available from the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, of which the Franciscan Action Network is a member and with whom I work.

Rhett Engelking, Program Manager for Franciscan Earth Corps, feels that this initiative can serve as a valuable means by which to help millennial Catholics make important connections between ecology, faith, and the many aspects of a dynamic Christian life, no matter which ecological project an Earth Corps group chooses and however the group decides to reflect spiritually on its experience, Engelking sees experiential learning coupled with intentional spiritual reflection as a crucial means by which to foster lasting “eco-conversion” in persons and society, and believes that ecological orthopraxy is a valuable means by which to re-propose the Gospel to all Catholics, especially those in the millennial generation.


In Sustainability and Catholic Higher Education: A Toolkit for Mission Integration from the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, the Most Reverend William S. Skylstad, Bishop Emeritus of Spokane, Honorary Chairman of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, and past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed out that the Church’s teaching on creation care “must therefore be integral to the mission, identity and everyday life of” Catholic ministries and institutions.

Given the fact that many millennial Catholics have a natural inclination towards ecological concern, the bishop’s words are especially relevant to the Church’s New Evangelization. Lifting up and highlighting Catholic teaching on creation care and climate change can be an effective on-ramp by which to invite millennial Catholics into a deeper faith life, and the Earth Corps project provides one example of how to more effectively act on the insight of The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which states that “[t]he Church’s social doctrine is an integral part of her evangelizing ministry.

Updated: Changes have been made to the second paragraph to recognize Dr. Tobias Winright’s observation from last year.

President Obama on Climate Change

On Tuesday, June 25, 2013, President Obama unveiled the most ambitious plan to date by any U.S. President to address the increasingly urgent climate crisis. Although the speech was addressed to both the nation and the world, the address is particularly relevant for millennial Catholics. This is first due to the fact that he unveiled his plan to young people at Georgetown University and spoke directly to “your generation.” Additionally, the Catholic Church has explicitly and repeatedly advocated for public policies to address the climate crisis. Finally he mentioned two issues that have found resonance on Catholic college campuses and with millennials: the Keystone XL Pipeline and divestment from carbon-intensive industries.

The President’s Address

The President began by recounting the scientific facts of climate change: “scientists ha[ve] known since the 1800s that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide trap heat, and that burning fossil fuels release those gases into the air [. . .] The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all [of the uncertainty around climate science] to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.”

The President also laid out the impacts that the climate crisis is having—and will increasingly have—on people around the world. He particularly noted rising sea levels, drought-induced food stresses, and reduced water supplies, and went on to point out that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction in insurance premiums, state and local taxes, and the costs of rebuilding and disaster relief.” In addition, the President noted that poor “countries are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than we are [in the U.S.]. They don’t just have as much to lose, they probably have more to lose.”

In a preemptive move anticipating the “tired excuses” for climate inaction from those who claim that “we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy,” the President insisted that addressing the climate crisis does not have to adversely impact the U.S. economy. Rather, he framed the transition to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity for U.S. ingenuity, and encouraged people to both invest in a sustainable future and divest from carbon-intensive industries.

After his focus on the science and consequences of climate change, the President delivered what is arguably one of the most prophetic and decisive climate statements of both his talk and his presidency:

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why, today, I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader — a global leader — in the fight against climate change.”

He said that in light of failed Congressional climate policy efforts and the unwillingness of Congress to respond to his invitation for a “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change,” he would use his executive powers to address climate change in three key areas: carbon emission reductions, adaptation preparation, and international mitigation and adaptation efforts. The Washington Post has provided a helpful summary outline of the specific components of the President’s climate action plan.

Relevance to Millennial Catholics

Much has already been written about the implications of the President’s climate address. However,  there are at least five reasons why the speech is particularly relevant to millennial Catholics:

1. The millennial generation accepts the reality of climate change.

As noted, the President gave his address to a university audience and spoke directly to “your generation.” As I pointed out in my previous article Catholic Millennials and Climate Change, “The Pew Research Center has found that millennials are more likely to accept the reality that climate change is caused by human activity and are the least likely to deny climate science.” Millennials thus represent a crucial demographic in the effort to address climate change, and the President’s call to action might therefore be seen as particularly addressed to millennials:

What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands. Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

2. The choice of Georgetown University as the speech venue.

Of all the places in Washington D.C.—indeed the country—from which the President could have delivered his landmark climate speech, he chose to do so at a Catholic university. Although there are likely many reasons  why this venue was chosen, it is interesting to note that many of the themes highlighted by the President in his address—the biblical image of creation, the disproportionate vulnerability of poor communities, the responsibility we have to hand on a livable planet to future generations—are all key elements of the Church’s response to climate change.

Whether or not the President intended to do so, the choice to deliver his climate message from a Catholic university highlights the congruence between many secular and faith-based efforts to address the climate crisis. This in many ways affirms the insight made by Pope Benedict XVI that the climate crisis cannot be solved without the involvement of the church. As he said in Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, climate change “is a challenge for the Church.  She not only has a major responsibility; she is, I would say, often the only hope.  For she is so close to people’s consciences that she can move them to particular acts of self-denial and can inculcate basic attitudes in souls” (p. 46).

3. The Church’s call for a moral climate policy.

The Catholic Church has explicitly and repeatedly advocated for both international and domestic climate change policies. Pope Benedict XVI did so repeatedly in many addresses over the years, including his Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, the Angelus delivered in November of 2011, the Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps for the Traditional Exchange of New Year Greetings, and his Message to the 2009 International Summit on Climate Change. Similarly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has advocated for domestic and international climate change policies in many of its documents, including the 2013 Letter to President Obama, Legislative Response to Climate Change, Global Climate Change and our Catholic Response, Global Climate Change 2011, Global Climate Change 2010, and Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good.

Throughout these documents, the Church particularly calls on Catholics to advocate for climate change policies that meet three specific moral criteria:

(1) ease the burden on poor people;

(2) offer some relief for workers who may be displaced because of climate change policies; and

(3) promote the development and use of alternate renewable and clean-energy resources, including the transfer of such technologies and technical assistance that may be appropriate and helpful to developing countries in meeting the challenges of global climate change.

The President’s articulation of his climate action plan provides Catholics with an opportunity—and a responsibility—to reflect on and advocate for the moral principles that the Church insists should be part of any climate solution.

4. The Church’s expressed concern over the Keyston XL Pipeline

The President caught many off guard in his address by referencing the contentious Keystone XL pipeline that, if approved by the U.S. State Department, would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil across the 1,700 miles from Alberta to Texas each day. Although he did not make a commitment either way, the President said:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates Canadian tar sands oil to be “approximately 82% [more greenhouse gas intensive] than the average crude refined in the U.S., on a well-to-tank basis.” In view of this, and despite no official position from either the USCCB or the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, two Canadian bishops have expressed deep concern about the development of Canadian tar sands in the past.

Bishop Murray Chatlain of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, lamented that development of Canadian tar sands “will contribute to the climate change impacts that Northerners are experiencing.” Similarly, Most Reverend Luc Bouchard, Bishop of St. Paul, Alberta, warned that “new oil sands projects and expansions keep raising the total amount of emissions despite average per barrel reductions.” The President’s reference to the pipeline project gives further credence to the concerns of these prominent Catholic leaders, and should be taken up as an opportunity for other people of faith to advocate on the issue.

5. The increasing Catholic commitment to divestment.

Finally, the President’s climate address is relevant to millennial Catholics due to his reference to divestment from carbon-intensive industries. For more than a year now, a national movement has encouraged colleges, universities, cities, and other large institutions to divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies. The campaign argues that divestment is an effective tool that sends a market signal encouraging a shift in investments from high-carbon to low-carbon industries and decreasing the political influence of large fossil fuel corporations that obstruct effective climate policies.

Although the divestment campaign is generally targeted at all large organizations, students at Georgetown University and Boston College argue that their schools’ Catholic and Jesuit missions provide a moral imperative to divest their institutions’ endowments from fossil fuel corporations profiting from climate change and compromising key commitments of the Catholic Church. Although there are many considerations around the issue of fossil fuel divestment, the President’s reference to this strategy should encourage millennial Catholics, as well as administrators at Catholic institutions, to have a thoughtful and sustained conversation about the ethical considerations of investing in corporations that seek to profit without regard to their impact on climate change.


The climate crisis is among the greatest challenges of the twenty first century, and its scope requires that all people of faith and goodwill be engaged in the policy discussions that will shape humanity’s collective response. Millennial Catholics, by the nature of their age and faith, are in a unique position to make meaningful contributions to the policy discussion and bring much-needed energy to the climate debate. President Obama’s climate speech on June 25 seems to recognize the leadership potential of all millennials, and millennial Catholics have a distinct opportunity to lead their peers in the effort to avert climate catastrophe and so fully care for all God’s human and non-human creation.

Pope Francis on Consumerism, Environmental Ecology, and Human Ecology

Since his election to the papacy, Pope Francis has made the care of God’s good gift of Creation one of the central themes of his pontificate. This is in a certain sense not surprising, given both the environmental legacy of his papal predecessors—Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John II, in particular—and his choice of the name Francis.  The pope explained that one of the reasons he chose the name Francis was to recall the environmental ethic of St. Francis of Assisi and to lift up this central element of the Church’s tradition.

Yesterday, however, Pope Francis recognized World Environment Day at his weekly audience with some of his most insightful and prophetic words to date on the Christian vocation to “cultivate and care for” creation (Genesis 2:15), as he discussed the way in which the “culture of waste” harms both “environmental ecology” and “human ecology.” This is a powerful and challenging message for all people of faith and goodwill, especially those of us living comfortably in the so-called Global North.

In his weekly address, Pope Francis reflected on the second creation story of Genesis and explained:

“[T]he verb ‘to cultivate’ reminds me of the care that the farmer has for his land so that it bear fruit, and it is shared: how much attention, passion and dedication! Cultivating and caring for creation is God’s indication given to each one of us not only at the beginning of history; it is part of His project; it means nurturing the world with responsibility and transforming it into a garden, a habitable place for everyone.”

Although this is the responsibility to which God calls all people of faith and goodwill, Pope Francis went on to observe that this vocation is often compromised by an insatiable overconsumption of material goods and the “culture of waste” that has risen around the world. The pope observed:

“[W]e are often driven by pride of domination, of possessions, manipulation, of exploitation; we do not ‘care’ for [creation], we do not respect it, we do not consider it as a free gift that we must care for. We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation; thus we are no longer able to read what Benedict XVI calls ‘the rhythm of the love story of God and man.’ Why does this happen? Why do we think and live in a horizontal manner, we have moved away from God, we no longer read His signs.”

In addition to recognizing that overconsumption harms “environmental ecology,” Pope Francis called attention to the fact that materialism also compromises “human ecology.” The Pope said:

“Men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste’….Yet these things become the norm: that some homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a ten point drop on the stock markets of some cities is a tragedy. A person dying is not news, but if the stock markets drop ten points it is a tragedy! Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash.”

The Holy Father called particular attention to the way in which the “culture of waste” disposes of excess food when many around the world are starving, and declared, “We should all remember, however, that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the poor, the hungry!”

In response to the human and ecological challenges posed by rampant overconsumption and habitual disposal, Pope Francis recognizes that the interrelated challenges of protecting “human ecology” and caring for “environmental ecology” in the face of systemic overconsumption are “not just a matter of economics, but of ethics and anthropology.” Given this observation, the Holy Father concluded by asking “all to make a serious commitment to respect and protect creation, to be attentive to every person, to counter the culture of waste and disposable, to promote a culture of solidarity and of encounter.”

In light of this message, there are several ways in which Catholic millennials—particularly those of us in the United States—might respond to this call:

Distinguish Between “Consumption” and “Consumerism”: Humans are undeniably corporeal and, as such, require a certain amount of material goods. Although the consumption of resources is thus necessary—and even natural, according to Aquinas (ST II-II, Q. 66, Art. 2, ad. 2)—the proper consumption of resources is distinct from the principle of consumerism that drives much of modern economics. In her book The Story of Stuff: How our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, our Communities, and our Health–and a Vision for Change–which builds on the original short online documentary The Story of Stuff— Annie Leonard describes this distinction, saying:

“While consumption means acquiring and using goods and services to meet one’s needs, consumerism is the particular relationship to consumption in which we seek to meet our emotional and social needs through shopping, and we define and demonstrate our self-worth through the Stuff we own.  And overconsumption is when we take far more resources than we need and than the planet can sustain…. Consumerism is about excess” (129).

Connect the Dots between Consumerism and Environmental Degradation: Although we might not think about it when we purchase things at the store, consumerism is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation. This is because the resources needed to sustain a consumerist society must be extracted, transported, processed, and disposed of at rate that is having disastrous impacts on both the planet and our climate. This is particularly challenging for us as Americans, given how much we consume.  The Scientific American reports that although the we make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, “the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.” At this rate, another Scientific American piece points out, five earths would be needed for everyone in the world to live an average American lifestyle.

Highlight the Connection between Creation Care and Protecting Human Life and Dignity: Pope Francis’ observation that consumerism harms both “environmental ecology” and “human ecology” builds on the Church’s repeated affirmations that the Catholic commitment to protecting human life and dignity is intrinsically dependent upon the care of all creation. In view of this, Catholic millennials might help more Catholics resist consumerism by not only highlighting how this ethic harms the environment, but also by pointing out that human life and dignity cannot be fully protected without a safe and livable environment.

Embrace the Virtues of Prudence and Temperance: The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes virtues as “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith” (no. 1804). The Church traditionally recognizes four cardinal human virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, no. 1805-9), and attention to prudence and temperance is particularly germane to addressing consumerism. Prudence is the application of “practical reason” to a particular situation in order “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (no. 1806), while temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (no. 1809). As such, these two virtues can help people of faith and goodwill to thoughtfully discern and live by patterns of consumption that neither cause widespread environmental degradation nor compromise the Catholic commitment to protecting human life and dignity.

Imagine a New System: The world’s economy is largely premised on the assumption that endless economic growth fueled by insatiable consumerism is both possible and desirable. However, today’s message from Pope Francis—which is consistent with the Church’s long social tradition—questions both of these suppositions and calls for an alternative vision that values “human ecology” and “environmental ecology” over the endless acquisition of material goods. Towards this end, Catholic millennials have an opportunity to re-imagine what a sociopolitical and economic system that is more consistent with the Church’s authentic teaching might look like. Pope John Paul II offered a prophetic starting point for this vision in his encyclical Centesimus annus, and this framework could serve as an important starting point from which people of faith and good will might read the “signs of the times” and discern how we might create an economy that better cares for creation and protects human life and dignity:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being’, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (no. 36).