A Catholic approach to climate

By Celia Deane-Drummond | April 24, 2014

“Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”—Pope Francis

This is the manifesto Pope Francis gave at his inauguration on March 16, 2013. Now, a little more than a year after this statement, the Pope is writing an encyclical that is likely to reflect this threefold aim: to be in solidarity with the poor, to work for peace, and to protect creation. Indeed, it has been the style of his ministry so far to shatter the image of grandeur associated with the papacy and adopt instead the attitude of a simple friar; to become, as it were, the contemporary Francis for a modern age.

Francis of Assisi was as much concerned about rebuilding the church to reflect its deepest spiritual roots as is the contemporary Francis. This is why Pope Francis has paid so much attention in recent months to addressing difficult issues about internal governance. But, with a new encyclical on the way, we can expect a more outward orientation toward the needs of the global community.

Although papal encyclicals rarely mention climate change as such, they do discuss environmental concerns, and the link with climate change is presupposed. For example, in 2008 Monsignor Celestino Migliore, the Pope’s appointed representative to the Roman Catholic church in Poland, made the following statement: “The ongoing debate on climate change has helped put into focus the inescapable responsibility of one and all to care for the environment, thereby building consensus around the common objective of promoting a healthy environment for present and future generations.”

Alienation from creation. As Francis of Assisi recognized, in Catholicism God’s most fundamental relationship to humans is that of Creator. The creation is the Creator’s gift to human beings, who are made in the image of God yet are also creaturely like the rest of the natural world. The incarnation is the ultimate affirmation of that creaturely being, when God becomes fully human in the person of Jesus Christ.

Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, issued in 1979, recognized the crucial significance of Christ not only as affirming the natural world, but also as a source for its healing, drawing on the epistle to Romans: “In Jesus Christ the visible world which God created for man—the world that, when sin entered, ‘was subjected to futility’—recovers again its original link with the divine source of Wisdom and Love.” In Pope John Paul II’s view, consumptive and destructive habits alienate humanity from the earth, and Pope Francis will likely reiterate this view.

Alienation is expressed not only through individual acts, but also in sinful structures of society that marginalize the poor and create ever-larger gaps between those who have nothing and those who become wealthy through destructive and excessive “superdevelopment,” a term used by Pope Benedict XVI to describe the contrast between underdeveloped nations and those that develop beyond their needs. Such distortion in wealth stems, in a theological sense, from a distortion in the basic relationship between Creator and creature, leading to inappropriate desires.

Human ecology. How is it possible to respect natural limits for growth while also supporting forms of development that benefit underdeveloped nations? Pope John Paul II initiated this discussion by using the term “human ecology,” which he borrowed from the social sciences but took up in a new, theological sense. In commenting on the value of preserving the natural habitat of other species, he wrote that too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions that make it possible for all people to have human dignity and good lives. He insisted that there is a natural and moral structure that must be preserved, one that has at its heart faith in God as Creator. So, in Evangelium Vitae we find him saying: “It is the ecological question—ranging from the preservation of the natural habitats of the different species of animals and of other forms of life to ‘human ecology’ properly speaking—which finds in the Bible clear and strong ethical direction, leading to a solution which respects the great good of life, of every life.” Notice the deeply held conviction that all of life needs to be preserved alongside human life. So it is not simply a turn to nature or an exclusive focus on the human, but an integrated sense of the whole of life and of its flourishing as a single community.

Pope Benedict XVI built on these ideas and spoke of the importance of creation in maintaining peaceful relations. Not long after the 2009 United Nations Conference of Parties meeting on Climate Change, his World Day Message of Peace reiterated the need for a human ecology. Pope Benedict XVI put his commitment to climate change on the map by seeing it as part of creating a better world for humans; hence he saw poverty and climate change as parallel threats. As late in his ministry as January 2012, he claimed that “[e]nvironmental protection and the connection between fighting poverty and fighting climate change are important areas for the promotion of integral human development.”

Pope Benedict XVI insisted on a different kind of political and economic structure that challenged excessive development, but he did not seek to undo the basic market system. Pope Francis may be prepared to go further, because of his experience living in South America, where he was acutely aware of the negative results of economic and political disparities.

Pope Francis is clearly influenced by liberation theology, which at its heart begins with the most impoverished and seeks their liberation through structural change and not just individual conversion. But liberation theology has in recent years expanded to include the suffering not just of human communities, but of other creatures as well. This is entirely consistent with the message of the Gospel that views the Earth as gift and gives humans the special responsibility of caring for that gift. Pope Francis, in weaving in concern for creation, follows this trend.

More than a decade ago, Pope John Paul II spoke of “ecological conversion” in the same paragraph as human ecology. Humans have an ethical mandate to be environmental stewards, he said. We can expect much the same message from Pope Francis, but cast in a way that identifies clear ethical practices that focus on the need for simplicity, solidarity, and sustainability.

It is fairly unlikely that Pope Francis will stipulate in precise detail what needs to be done about climate change. He will certainly raise the issue, but I doubt he will delve into the details of the scientific account or recommend specifics for human action apart from reducing consumption and ridding ourselves of what could be termed consumer idolatry. Nonetheless, inasmuch as he has already shown that practical action is important, he may—by the way he conducts his affairs both in his personal and public life—illustrate by example what needs to be done by giving priority to living more simply and cutting down on consumptive habits that plague the richest nations of the world and contribute to climate change.

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