Shifting Doctrines: The Pope on Climate Change

For the past few decades, conservative Christianity has often been at odds with environmentalism. Many Christians have simply brushed aside environmental issues for more spiritually pressing issues such as evangelism. On the more extreme end, commentators such as Glenn Beck have villainized the environmental movement from a religious perspective, and Catholic presidential candidate Rick Santorum has emphasized that man should “have dominion over the Earth…for our benefit, not for the Earth’s benefit.” Some church leaders have penned environmentalism as “a complete alternative worldview”, and have published doctrines on how to “counter it effectively.” Evangelical Christians, among the most conservative, are also more likely to be skeptical of climate change than other Americans: 50% of Evangelical Christians answered “no” or “don’t know” when asked whether they think global warming is happening in 2009, compared to 37% of Americans as a whole.

Explanations for this disconnect between religion and environmentalism are varied. Many Christians look to verses in the Bible (such as Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground,”) to justify man’s complete domination over the Earth and its resources. Other explanations can be traced to a clash between Christianity and science, as I’ve discussed in a previous post. Acknowledging climate change, and more importantly that it is human-caused, requires a trust in the credibility of scientific claims. If Christians see modern science as threatening core parts of their beliefs it is understandable that trust in science among this group may be lower.

As several scholars and commentators have pointed out, however, environmentalism does not need to be at odds with Christianity. There is a strong theme of human stewardship of God’s creation in the Bible that can be tapped to generate concern for the environment among Christians. These frames seem to be growing in prevalence as well: a 2009 paper published in Global Environmental Change finds prominent narratives of conservation, protection, and ecologically-friendly progress and development in US religious rhetoric.

Since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, the prospects of Christian alignment with environmentalism have grown significantly. Pope Francis, whose name comes from Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, has shown himself to be an undeniable environmentalist. In 2014, he began referring to the environment and climate change in speeches, characterizing the environment as “one of the greatest challenges of our time,” and calling the exploitation of nature the major sin of modern times.

On June 18th, Pope Francis released a long-awaited encyclical, one of the Catholic Church’s most solemn and authoritative teaching documents, on climate change. This is the first encyclical devoted to environmentalism, and unlike most encyclicals addressed only to the Bishops, it is addressed to every person on the planet. The release of the encyclical is a huge step forward in solidifying the Catholic Church’s position on environmental issues like climate change, and it’s timing in the lead-up to the important 21st Conference of the Parties climate negotiations in Paris later this year is no coincidence.

Pope Francis is methodical in his account of human-caused environmental degradation in the encyclical, and the responsibilities that we all have to turn things around. He begins by summarizing “What is happening to our Common Home”, focusing on dangerous levels of waste, pollution, loss of biodiversity, the urgency of providing universally-available fresh drinking water, and the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. In noting these impacts, the encyclical has a powerful anti-consumerism lesson. He pins these environmental consequences on our “throwaway culture”, noting that “the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey.”

In addition to environmental challenges, the encyclical focuses on the significant levels of inequality in the world, and the fact that the poor will be the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Pope Francis calls out those who “possess more resources and economic or political power,” as most concerned with “masking the problems [of environmental degradation] and concealing their symptoms”.

Specifically on the topic of climate change, the Pope makes it very clear that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” And while some Catholic organizations have written that the encyclical does not confirm climate change’s human origins, a chapter entitled “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis” and quotes such as “It would hardly be helpful to describe symptoms without acknowledging the human origins of the ecological crisis,” bring that conclusion into question.

It seems clear that the release of this encyclical is a major step in a shift of Catholic doctrine towards embracing environmentalism. Catholics cannot dismiss the encyclical, as it is viewed as the authoritative word of God through Pope Francis. And while the papal teachings are only binding for Catholics (who already tend to be the strongest believers in climate change among Christians), papal leadership on issues often trickles down to Protestant Christian doctrine as well. Pope Francis is expected to have more plans to promote action on the environment and climate change over the next six months, and it will be extraordinarily interesting to see the impact that his leadership may have in closing the chasm between Christianity and environmentalism.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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