At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, delegates from 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement aimed at reducing carbon emissions and thus halting the destructive effects of global warming. The agreement awaits ratification by signatories and takes effect only if 55 of the nations that account for 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions take action and endorse the agreement–the U. S. is not expected to ratify. The Paris agreement is significant in terms of politics and economics, but religious leaders have also voiced support of the agreement, and clearly a move is underway to make climate change and environmental responsibility an integral part of contemporary religious life and practice.
Religious involvement on this issue is not new. Environmental activism today is truly global and involves countless people in organizing efforts that are aimed at improving the health of the planet and assuring a safe environment for future generations. Environmental protection has been for decades an issue of science, global politics and international economics, but some voices speaking to the issue remind us that motivation for such activism can spring from deep moral concerns and religious sensibilities. Religious thought has long attended to the natural world and the environment, whether in the Western traditions affirming the earth as a glorious product of God’s creative activity or in Native American and Asian religions that emphasize the interconnectedness of human beings and nature. Religious faith and spiritual commitments are today providing the energizing fuel to sustain involvement with issues like climate change and environmental responsibility.
Last May, Pope Francis published a remarkable document that calls on all people of good will to care for a creation entrusted to them by God. The document, Laudato Si’, takes its title from the hymns of praise written by the Pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, whose love of the natural world was central to a vision of life with God and whose canticles to the sun and moon began with the words “Praise to You O Lord” or in Latin, “Laudato Si'”. In this document, the first papal encyclical ever dedicated exclusively to the environment, Pope Francis states that the environmental crisis is not only a scientific, political and economic problem but a moral and spiritual challenge as well.
The papal encyclical addresses a concern voiced in the 1970s by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, whose worry that not enough attention was being focused on the environment led to the first Earth Day action-celebration. Although every major ecological disaster draws headlines, the news cycle changes daily, and the environment continues to be subject to cultural attention deficit disorder. When the environment drops off the front page in the wake of disaster, NGOs, international organizations and lobbyists take on the chore of keeping policy makers focused on the issue, and this is hard work. The unique contribution of Laudato Si’ is that it is a big and bold statement that is seeking to make the environment a focal point of religious and theological reflection, a dramatic move that may keep the world’s attention focused on climate change and environmental responsibility in a more long-term, sustainable way.
When the encyclical was released last May, the Pope, representing the priorities of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, was certainly aware that his moral and spiritual authority would capture the world’s attention. And so it did. The encyclical addressed the complexity of the environmental problem, offering criticisms and hope that faith can play a significant role in helping to address environment-related problems. The pope attended to the ways in which environmental degradation and pollution disproportionately affect the poor and reflect a false “techno-scientific progress” that must not be mistaken for “human progress.” He criticized a “throw away” consumer culture in the privileged countries of the world and advocated changes in lifestyle (even criticizing air conditioning at one point), calling on wealthy countries to reduce consumption of non-renewable energy resources while helping poorer nations develop in sustainable ways. He confronted the self-centeredness and greed that so mark modern life and advocated help for the poor based on an economic model of fair distribution of wealth. The Pope concluded that when distributive justice is violated and a privileged few have too much while too many have too little, “it always leads to violence.”
The encyclical has come under criticism. The economic justice concerns have been attacked by free market capitalists; questions have been asked whether the Pope’s love for the poor translates into concrete policy concerning the immediate problem of climate change; and the fact that global warming gas emissions have increased as the global population has increased calls into question the carrying capacity of planet earth and also the church’s teaching on birth control as it affects human population growth.
Any document speaking from such a place of authority and on behalf of so many is bound to raise controversy. The pope has said he is not a scientist, economist or a politician, but a person of faith speaking from a spiritual center to a spiritual problem. The pope has called on people to acknowledge the interconnectedness of human beings with nature; and he criticizes wealthy nations for their excessive use of natural resources. He argues that the economy of excess has created an economy of exclusion–it is the poor who lack access to clean water and air and who then lose out as well in employment, housing and economic opportunity.
Pope Francis was not talking just about climate change but the need for a change of heart. And he may be right in where he puts the emphasis–on questions of spirit and faith. Spiritual change, the Pope says, by making the world more humane will make the environment a “common good” for which all people must accept responsibility. As the Paris Agreement occasions reflection on motivation for environmental action and as it envisions global policy changes, Pope Francis’ bold message placing the environment at the center of faith and spiritual commitment is worth serious attention by both environmental activists and persons of faith.
(Portions of this blog were previously published in The Morning Call and are used here with permission.)
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