SLU Faculty Offer Insights into Pope Francis’ Widely Anticipated Letter on the Environment
June 18, 2015
Pope Francis, leader of the world’s Catholics and an acknowledged moral authority across the globe, revealed his grave concern for the earth and the health of current and future generations in his latest encyclical, issued June 18. In one section, Pope Francis writes: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” In response, he speaks of changes he believes are necessary, and the Christian foundations for his reasoning.
As a leading Catholic teaching university, Saint Leo University has many faculty members who are experts in theology, Catholic social justice, science, and other topical areas that Pope Francis discusses in Laudato Si. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html. Since the encyclical is meant to prompt serious reflection and discussion, Saint Leo faculty members offer their perspective here for the public good, including media use. Additional updates will be added as they are received. Some of the teaching faculty who offer commentary here also serve as faculty experts for the Saint Leo University Polling Institute (http://polls.saintleo.edu), which regularly surveys the public nationally and in Florida about public policy matters, elected officials, Pope Francis, and other newsworthy or interesting topics.
Associate professor of biology and physics
Saint Leo University Polling Institute faculty expert on global climate change
I am personally very pleased to see that Pope Francis has taken the lead in calling everyone to act to combat threats to our natural environment in the encyclical. In it, Pope Francis focuses on “global environmental deterioration,” widely ranging from global warming, pollution, loss of access to clean water, losses of biodiversity, destruction of forests and woodlands, urban sprawl, and threats to our oceans. The encyclical does discuss many scientific findings and theories, but it is really more of a religious and philosophical argument. Pope Francis calls on “all of humanity,” and asks that we become “painfully aware” of the problem and dare to consider solutions. This is the right thing to do because “God has entrusted the world to us” and because “deterioration of the environment debases human life.” We are part of nature, and humans and nature coexist. The pope goes on to say that to commit a crime against nature is a sin against God and ourselves. He urges us to move gradually from what we want to what God’s world needs, and observes that “the natural environment and the human environment deteriorate together.”
The pope calls for fossil fuels to be replaced and for the development of renewable energies. He asks that we develop transportation and production methods that use less energy. He suggests that energy efficiencies should be increased, and discusses “obstructionist attitudes,” which include denials, nonchalant resignation, blind faith in technical solutions, and a more general lack of interest by the public to do what is needed. And he correctly observes that the rapid pace of human developments outstrips the slow pace of nature. As I have described to my students many times, the greater problem is not climate change; rather, it is rapid climate change. Nature can adapt, but cannot adapt quickly, and this is often what leads to destruction of biodiversity and the extinction of species. Pope Francis observes that the loss of biodiversity follows destruction of forests and woodlands, which robs us all of resources. But this should not be considered a mere resource, the pontiff continues, as we have “no right” to destroy God’s creations. And as scientists know, every creature has an environmental niche, an essential role in the ecosystem that deteriorates with the loss of each species. Pope Francis sums up the moral imperative nicely when he observes that “the climate is for the common good, belongs to all, and is meant for all.”
But this encyclical is not just an environmental criticism. The pope is examining the contributions of a more general breakdown of our society. He bemoans the loss of “real relationships” to “internet communications which allow us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim.” He identifies urban sprawl as a threat, as well as pollution of all types. With great insight, the Holy Father comments on the danger of “great sages” being drowned out by the information overload of modern society, which in my opinion, makes it all the more important that he lend his voice to this environmental cause. He identifies political and societal problems such as access to clean water, calling it “a basic and universal human right.” He says a major portion of the environmental problem is caused by our throwaway society, which discards resources with little recycling in an unsustainable model, and calls on us to mimic nature, where all matter is recycled.
And just to be clear, this is not new ground for the Roman Catholic Church. Previous encyclical letters are cited from almost every pope who has served in my lifetime: Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. This new encyclical is lengthy, and an 82-page manuscript cannot be summarized in just a few words, so I urge everyone to read this timely and wise statement for themselves. I applaud the Holy Father for taking on the environment from a moral perspective, and am impressed with his knowledge and insight. I appreciate his guidance and advice to all.
Assistant professor of religion and theology, Virginia
Pope Francis is clear about whom he intends to reach in this encyclical: “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.” I believe that this encyclical is important because as such a respected world leader, the pope’s words here will undoubtedly have a great impact. This encyclical is one of the most “postmodern” ecclesiastical documents I have read. Pope Francis does not mince words in critiquing, even condemning, a number of the assumptions of “modernity” including individualism; autonomy; science and technology jettisoning questions of morality; and human domination over nature. The pope argues that religion can provide answers to problems in ways that secularism cannot, for instance, in providing reasons for why human beings should care about the environment in the first place. Here Pope Francis also offers a concise but plausible response to common modern secular criticisms of religion, particularly Christianity, as promoting precisely the kinds of behaviors (e.g., humans “ruling over the earth and subduing it”) that have caused the environmental crisis.
Will U.S. Catholics listen? Well, of course some will and some will not, and those who do respond will do so to varying degrees. I don’t think the lack of listening and action, to whatever degree, will be because people disagree with what much of what the pope says, which is often the case on other matters when we speak of “cafeteria Catholics.” Pope Francis offers multiple specific reasons for why people have shown indifference to the environmental crisis, and in what manner. Regardless of his accuracy as to the specifics of the reasons, I believe that the same sorts of things that cause people to be indifferent with respect to the environmental crisis cause indifference in other matters, too. If those who do respond implement some of the actions he prescribes at the end of the encyclical, these could very well help move more Catholics to overcome their own indifference and inaction.
Regarding Saint Leo University’s core value of responsible stewardship, Pope Francis does an excellent job of showing that responsible stewardship with respect to the environment is just another facet of our responsibility to other human beings, and vice versa. That our treatment of creation and our treatment of other human beings are two sides of the same coin are longstanding principles of Catholic moral theology and social teaching.
In terms of tips and advice for the faithful, I would encourage learning more about both the environmental issues Pope Francis raises—sometimes in very specific terms. Find out more about the real environmental problems. Find out more about what experts are saying regarding the economic, social, political, and scientific aspects of these problems. Become more aware of the types of the ways in which, and the degree to which, human beings are suffering on our planet. Raising these things to and keeping them in the forefront of one’s consciousness can be a big motivator for personal action. Of course, learning more about our Catholic faith, moral teaching, and social teaching is always invaluable.
Instructor of political science
Saint Leo University Polling Institute faculty expert on American politics
Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, is winning plaudits for adhering to mainstream scientific belief on climate change and calling attention to its disproportionate effect on the poor. What effect will this have on the American political landscape? Pope Francis has maintained a high approval rating throughout his first two years as the Bishop of Rome. Parallels can be drawn between the way that President Obama used broad public support at the beginning of his term to pass the Affordable Care Act and the Holy Father's attempt to influence the climate debate ahead of key meetings this year. While it is likely that Laudato Si will raise the salience of the issue for the American public, I believe that it will do more to change the pope's approval ratings than alter opinions on climate change.
Despite the fact that Pope Francis has presented a cautious and complex document, most citizens will receive takeaway messages filtered through opinion leaders in a polarized context. Democrats will point to the pope as an example of the moral imperative of action on the issue. This may excite those who already believed something needed to be done and cause them to hold the pope in greater esteem, but the effect will be reversed for those who think the issue is overblown.
Voters are more closely tied to their party identification than religious affiliation. When these two identities are in opposition, they are more likely to dismiss the religious argument than their party's platform.
At the margin, there will be some Catholic voters who shift their opinion on the issue, especially with the pope's historic swing through the United States scheduled for this fall, but it would be out of step to expect a groundswell, at least in the short term. Over time, opinions on issues do change as a preponderance of elites change, and the pope is still a strong voice. Still, unless Francis can change the tune of influential Republican skeptics, the impact this summer will be minimal.