Pope Francis, Climate, and Controversy

By Bruce E. Johansen

Pope Francis’ major encyclical (teaching letter) on the environment (focusing on climate change) is not unusual for its scientific content—many individuals and groups have emphasized the serious nature of global warming in hundreds of reports. However, the rollout of this document in June was very notable for the strategy used to publicize it, and distinguished by its large audience: 1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide. The document is also very unusual for its fusion of scientific support with moral persuasion. “I wish to address every person living on this planet,” the Pope wrote.

The Pope’s 184-page Laudato Si [Be Praised], On the Care of Our Common Home, calls for scientists and religious people to unite in a campaign against the root causes of global warming, which include over-consumption, dependence on fossil fuels, and the denial and indifference of wealthy and powerful people. Francis, who took that name after St. Francis of Assisi, the Roman Catholic patron saint of animals and the environment, focused attention on climate change as no one else on earth could. Worldwide media interest, the New York Times reported, was “enormous.”

A Familiar Message

Anyone who has been watching daily weather reports and the evening TV news knows, as the Pope (who received part of his education as a chemist) observes, that: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system… accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, [as] a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.” It is widely known that, as Francis states, that “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

Scientists usually avoid passing moral judgment on their findings, but Pope Francis’s encyclical cites their studies and supplies economic, social and moral context that establishes the environmental crisis (of which climate change is a major part) as the existential threat to humanity and the fauna and flora on the Earth, in this, the first papal statement on the environmental damage wrought by humankind’s multiplication and subjugation of the Earth.

“Jeb!” Objects

The pope’s message carried some special freight for several Catholic Republican politicians in the United States who have emphatically declared that climate change is a hoax. One, Jeb Bush, told Pope Francis to stay out of politics. As Thomas G. Wenski, Miami’s archbishop, prepared a summer of sermons spreading Pope Francis’ message that consumption of fossil fuels has become a major cause of warming threatening the world’s poor, Bush, who had just begun his run for president in the same city, said: “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope… And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in[to] the political realm.” Informed of Bush’s rebuke, Archbishop Wenski said: “This is not an issue of right or left. This is more important than an ideological food fight.”

In Iowa, an early primary state for the United States’ 2016 presidential campaign, the New York Times reported that “The bishops of Des Moines and Davenport [were] planning a news media event at a wind turbine manufacturing facility, where they will highlight findings that climate change drives the drought and floods that plague Iowa farmers.”

Taking Issue with Genesis 1:28

To make Biblical sense of his message, Pope Francis has re-written an important piece of scripture: The Bible’s teaching (in the book of Genesis) that humankind emerged from the Garden of Eden to “be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the Earth, and subdue it, and have dominion… over every moving thing that moveth upon the earth.” Humanity has invoked that command of Genesis to such a degree that we have overwhelmed the Earth. If basic behavior does not change, the Pope says that future generations will inherit a hell on Earth.

Pope Francis said that Genesis 1:28 “is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

The Pope perhaps has provided us an earnest nudge down a sustainable path. I respectfully submit that it is only a beginning. When he suggests that Catholics quit having huge families, we will know the Catholic Church is really serious about rebuking the old command of Genesis 1:28 to multiply and subdue the Earth. (He already has remarked off-the cuff that no doctrine requires Catholics to “breed like rabbits.”) Voluntary simplicity will not save the planet. Not everyone in a world of 10 billion people 50 years from now is going to do most of his or her business from the seat of a bicycle.

FURTHER READING

Davenport, Coral. “Pope’s Views on Climate Change Add Pressure to Catholic Candidates.”New York Times, June 16, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/us/politics/popes-views-press-gop-on-climate-change.html

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