In a passionate and wide-ranging essay published today, Pope Francis outlined the Catholic Church's concerns over climate change, issuing a call to action for both individuals and governments to tackle the planet's ecological plight. Francis warned that the world faces "the unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all of us," and reiterated the scientific community's view that climate change is a man-made phenomenon that needs to be addressed without delay.
"one of the principal challenges facing humanity."
"Climate change is a global problem with grave implications," writes Francis. "It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades." The Pope stressed that richer, developed countries were mostly responsible for the crisis, and that they have a duty to help poorer nations. He also blamed "the myopia of power politics" and our reliance on technology, which "sometimes solves one problem only to create others."
The Pope's words have already proved controversial in the US, after a draft of the essay was leaked earlier this week. Presidential candidate and converted Catholic Jeb Bush was one of many Republican politicians to refute Francis's remarks. "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 cardinal or my pope," said Bush in a campaign speech in New Hampshire. "I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm."
The Pope, however, disagrees. Although the essay does mention and critique specific policies (carbon credits, for example, are dismissed as a "ploy" to maintain "excessive consumption"), it also makes an argument that is rooted in Christian beliefs. The title of the essay comes from a 13th century prayer by St. Francis of Assisi known as The Canticle of the Creatures that refers to "our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us." Francis stresses this idea of humanity's stewardship of the Earth and rejects interpretations of the Bible (specifically of the book of Genesis) that grant mankind "dominion" over the Earth.
"THE BIBLICAL TEXTS [IMPLY] A RELATIONSHIP OF MUTUAL RESPONSIBILITY."
"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," writes Francis. "The biblical texts are to be read in their context ... recognizing that they tell us to 'till and keep' the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). 'Tilling' refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while 'keeping' means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility."
It will be difficult for Catholics — politicians, perhaps, withstanding — to ignore the Pope's words. The essay took the form of an encyclical, the second most authoritative form of papal address. Past encyclicals have been used to outline the Church's stance on important issues, such as denouncing the policies of the Third Reich and reaffirming its rejection of birth control. And while encyclicals are not necessarily infallible (statements made under the aegis of papal infallibility are incredibly rare and pertain only to matters of faith), they should, at least, give faithful Catholics pause for thought.
THE POPE'S INTENDED AUDIENCE IS ALL OF HUMANITY
However, it's clear that the Pope's intended audience is all of humanity — the secular and the religious, whatever denomination. As well as climate change, Laudato Si' addresses global issues such as "the culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest," and the continuing need to "eliminate extreme poverty." However, the Pope concludes that "all is not lost."
"Human beings, while capable of the worst," he writes, "are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom."