CNS photo/Pawel Kopczynski, Reuters

Church voice matters

  • May 7, 2015

Some time next month the Vatican will release the Pope’s much-anticipated encyclical on the environment. It will be the first time a pope has devoted an encyclical to environmental matters and already critics are questioning Pope Francis’ qualifications to address this complex scientific issue.

In one sense, this concern is good. It demonstrates just how much weight is given to the Pope’s words in even the non-Catholic world. People recognize and respect his ability to influence world affairs. He is a genuine player on the international stage — which unsettles climate-change deniers and other status-quo proponents.

So their tactic, apparently, is to insist the world’s most important spiritual leader stick to religion and morality and leave the business of cleaning up the planet to the deep thinkers of science, business and politics. “It’s not the business of the Church to stray from faith and morals,” said one British political advisor.  Another lobbyist claimed the encyclical is an “unprecedented action and massively misguided” and “would sow confusion among Catholics.”

 True, the Pope is neither scientist, policy maker nor businessman. But to suggest any of that disqualifies him from issuing a comprehensive teaching on the environment is ludicrous. At a Vatican summit on climate change in late April, speakers emphasized that fixing the environment is, at heart, a moral issue.  For millions of people the consequences of a sick planet are hunger, suffering, poverty and social injustice. Why the planet is a mess and why it is so difficult to clean up is that we live in a self-absorbed world that craves wealth and creature comforts and is addicted to consumption.

Unlike carbon emissions, moral failings are difficult to measure but they exist in abundance, which is why the Pope is uniquely qualified to weigh in on this debate. In that sense, his encyclical should be less about the science of climate change than about the human condition that fuels the problem.  

In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict touched on the connection between lifestyles that promote hedonism and consumerism and the harmful consequences these can have on the environment. He called for a shift in mentality to build societies founded on ethics and morality that are more concerned with advancing the common good than maximizing profits. Benedict once said that climate change is merely a symptom of a larger problem. “It is a manifestation of the major issues — sin, greed and arrogance,” he said.

That is how Francis is expected to frame his debate. Expect him to leave the science nitty gritty and policy discussions to others and instead make a case that links the environmental emergency to society’s moral crisis. It’s a message the world needs to hear, no matter what the skeptics say.

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