The Pope’s Moral Case for Taking On Climate Change

Francis’s first encyclical is a cry to save the environment—and make a priority of theology over politics.

Gregorio Borgia / AP

“The majority of people living on our planet profess to be believers.” It is a statement of fact, an intellectual premise, a gentle claim of territory. In his new encyclical on environmental degradation, Laudato Si, Pope Francis is not just addressing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He’s tagging God into the global conversation on climate change.

The document, which was leaked on Monday by an Italian newspaper and officially released by the Vatican on Thursday, bitterly condemns the human failures that have eroded much of the environment. The pope rattles off fact after fact about the pitiful state of the earth: Pesticides have contaminated farmers’ soil. Air pollution has poisoned cities. Man-made waste checkers landscapes. There’s not enough clean water for people to drink or tropical forests to regulate carbon in the atmosphere. Whole species of animals are dying out.

Humans ruined the earth, the pope says, but sin ruined humans. “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life,” he writes. “The ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion.”

Francis knows all about the Rio+20 conference and cap-and-trade and carbon taxes. He spends whole passages on green building standards and sustainable energy use. Every effort is important, he says, but ultimately politics and technology have failed to save the earth. “[Some] tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change,” he writes. “Each age tends to have only a meager awareness of its own limitations.”

Though Church leaders have long spoken up for the environment, Francis has made environmental issues a priority of his papacy. This is the first encyclical that is fully his, and the Catholic Church’s first-ever dedicated entirely to this topic. The pope is offering the world a moral vocabulary for talking about climate change, shifting global attention from the macro solutions of policy summits to the personal ethics of environmental stewardship. In the book of Luke, Jesus looks at the birds and says, “Not one of them is forgotten before God.” In writing Laudato Si, Francis has taken this parable and turned it back on humankind: Policymakers and scientists may try to stop the warming of the earth, but ultimately, we are each responsible for the destruction of creation.

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The opening lines of Laudato Si are drawn from a 13th-century poem called the “Canticle of the Creatures,” written by a different Francis. “Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs,” the saint from Assisi wrote. The current pope chose his namesake for three reasons: his concern for the poor, his love of peace, and his care for creation.

Historical references like this are peppered throughout the document, and they serve as an important reminder to an often-giddy media that loves to write about today’s revolutionary pope: In the Church, precedent is everything. Francis’s argument is deeply grounded in Catholic teachings dating back to the late-19th-century writings of Pope Leo XIII (and before that, Jesus). Francis eagerly praises his predecessors: In his 1990 World Day of Peace speech, John Paul II declared the environment to be a moral priority of the Church, warning that “world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts, and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature.” Benedict XVI was nicknamed “the green pope” because he spoke on environmental issues so frequently; he had solar panels installed on the roof of the Vatican and even rolled out a hybrid version of the Popemobile.

In other words, this is far from the Church’s first foray into environmentalism. “I always remind my environmental friends that St. Francis was ours before he was theirs,” said John Carr, a professor at Georgetown and former staffer at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This didn’t begin with Earth Day or Al Gore. It began with Genesis.”

What’s significant about this document, though, is its scope and ambition. Popes have a number of ways to spread messages, including homilies, speeches, or more informal texts called apostolic exhortations. Encyclicals are considered formal teachings on Catholic doctrine; collectively, popes have written about 300 of them since the first was released 275 years ago. Often, they’re directed at bishops and priests, but not so this time: During his regular Sunday address this week, Francis said, “This encyclical is aimed at everyone.”

It’s also really, really long. Over the course of many pages—192 in some versions—Francis talks a lot about the environment itself, including extensive laments about the effects of climate change. But the document is focused more on humans than nature, echoing two of the most important themes of Francis’s papacy: caring for the poor and preserving the family.

At the core of his argument is this fact: The “worst impact [of climate change] will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.” At Catholic Relief Services, an organization that offers disaster and development aid to roughly 100 million people in 93 countries each year, volunteers and staffers have seen these effects firsthand. “In particular, we’re seeing different weather patterns that lead to persistent droughts, floods, and storms that are more frequent than people are used to,” said Joan Rosenhauer, the organization’s executive vice president of U.S. operations. “Farmers are no longer able to grow the crops that they have for generations, because the land is getting too dry or the rainfall is too unpredictable or the temperatures are rising.”

Humans ruined the earth, the pope says, but sin ruined humans.

In addition to small island nations, which are often hit hard by storms, environmental degradation is felt most acutely in Latin America and Africa, Rosenhauer said. Coincidentally or not, these are also two of the most important regions for the future of the Church. As of 2010, Latin America accounted for roughly 40 percent of the global Catholic population. And while Sub-Saharan Africa only accounted for 16 percent of the world’s Catholics, it’s where the faith is growing most rapidly: Demographers predict that the region’s Christian population could nearly double in size by 2050, although some of that growth will be among Protestants.

Undoubtedly, this shapes how the pope thinks about his teachings. To take one example, in Latin America, “there are these vast mines where the worker protections and the environmental protections are not as stringent as in other countries, and so we see humans suffering: We see more birth defects and shorter lives,” said Dan Misleh, the executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a network of organizations dedicated to conserving the environment. “Pope Francis has that perspective—he comes from Argentina.”

But the pope uses different language than a climate activist might. Throughout the encyclical, he refers to the modern world’s “throwaway culture.” This includes literal trash—“hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources,” he writes. But it also encompasses a mentality of excessive consumption and an orientation toward profit maximization, especially in the “global north.” People in the developed world are morally obligated to those in developing countries, he says, because when they buy things, it’s at the direct expense of the labor, health, and, sometimes, lives of the poor. As Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “It is good for people to realize that purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act.”

The metaphor of the “throwaway culture” is helpful for understanding another important, albeit minor, theme of the encyclical: the importance of the family in caring for the environment. “In the Catholic tradition, the human is not only sacred, but social. The principle social unit is family,” said Carr. To Francis, cultivating moral life through the family—and cultivating human life in general—is a core part of caring for creation. This is why, in an encyclical about the environment, the pope writes that abortion is unforgiveable. “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion,” he says. Carr sees this as part of the larger metaphor: “‘Throwaway culture’ is his description of what is wrong with contemporary society. In his view, and in the Church’s view, that begins with the unborn child, or throwing away an embryo,” he said.

“Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate,” Francis writes. “At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health.’”

In making this comment, he’s taking aim at a whole swath of the development and environmentalist community, including aid organizations and governments. Throughout the encyclical, he slams what could roughly be called “technological solutionism,” when “life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.” It’s a somewhat obtuse reminder that the pope is neither a liberal activist nor a technocrat intent on finding simple solutions. His encyclical is a sermon, not a white paper, and he’s comfortable criticizing do-gooders and multinational corporations in the same breath.

“Instead of resolving the problems of the poor ... some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate.”

Although Francis acknowledges efforts to enact global climate-change policies, he’s fairly critical of their efficacy. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been,” he writes. “The failure of global summits on the environment [makes] it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance.” Regulations can be helpful, he argues, but they are often ineffective because governments fail to enforce them. “There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good.”

It’s a hefty critique, and strategic: This November, the United Nations will host a climate-change conference in Paris in the hopes of producing new, legally binding global guidelines on carbon emissions—a follow-up to the now-expired Kyoto Protocol.

But though the pope may have one of the world’s most impressive stocks of soft power, he’s not a policymaker; he doesn’t have the power to create new global guidelines on climate change. It’s one thing to critique, but how does the pope propose to fix the planet?

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“Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment.”

This is the blessing and burden of speaking as a priest rather than a policymaker: Francis sees the destruction of the earth as a structural problem, but also a personal one. Even for those who are concerned about the effects of climate change and living conditions in the developing world, it can be difficult to embrace responsibility; the actions and intentions of one person seem so small, so morally irrelevant, in the context of all of creation. But this is exactly what Francis calls for: “profound interior conversion.”

To the policy-minded, and perhaps some of the technocrats whom the pope has spent paragraphs criticizing, this may seem like a pretty thin recommendation. But coming from Francis, it’s the most logical possible conclusion. Sin created the division between nature and man; this is the story of the fall from God’s grace in the Garden of Eden, and the essential theme of Christianity. In Catholicism, redemption from sin is found in taking the Eucharist, which Catholics see as the literal body and blood of Christ. It’s the act of an individual, not a committee; reform of the world begins with reform of the heart, on climate change or anything else.

The actions and intentions of one person seem so morally irrelevant in the context of all of creation.

This is not to say that Francis totally eschews the practical. He praises the efficiency of solar energy and calls for a significant decrease in the use of non-renewable resources. He emphasizes the importance of farming and local agriculture in particular: “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature,” he writes. He emphasizes the power of homes in providing dignity for the poor, perhaps shaped by his time walking the slums of Buenos Aires.

His efforts are also remarkably ecumenical. At the press conference announcing the encyclical’s release on Thursday, the Vatican featured four official presenters: Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and one of the primary architects of the encyclical;  John Zizioulas, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church; and two scientists. One of them, John Schellnhuber, a German professor, pointed out that it was perhaps the first time that a major Church document was introduced partly with a PowerPoint presentation.

This kind of collaboration is highly unorthodox for a Vatican event held on this scale, said Kevin Irwin, a priest at the Catholic University of America and former staffer at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The pope is not just speaking to those of other faiths and those who study the climate; he’s speaking with them. As Zizioulas put it, the encyclical is “an effort to face together the most profound existential [crises] that occupy humanity in its entirety.”

As a political document, Laudato Si is an expansive analysis of the effects of the powerful on the powerless. As an economic document, it is a scathing critique of profit motives. And as a cultural document, it shows how one charismatic leader can rally enormous interest for a global issue, perhaps more than an army of activists can.

But as a moral document, it shows the breadth and power of theology in deciphering the modern world. Francis calls on “every person who lives on this planet” to wrestle with the sin of climate change, but he does so mercifully. He mourns the destruction of the earth’s forests and pollution of the earth’s waters because he takes joy in creation. “Teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe, for all things speak of you,” he writes at the end of his encyclical. It’s not a solution. It’s a humble prayer for a plundered world.