Saint Leo University Religion Faculty Weigh In On Pope Francis’ New Document on Climate Change, Protection of Environment
‘Laudate Deum’ Makes Pointed, Urgent Call to Respond to Environmental Disasters
On the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4), Pope Francis released the much anticipated follow-up to his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato sí. Laudete Deum, which means “Praise God” in Latin, opens with St. Francis’ own exhortation to “Praise God in all his creatures.”
“Eight years have passed since I published the encyclical letter Laudato sí . . . with the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point,” Pope Francis wrote.
In the first section, “The Global Climate Crisis,” the document urges that anthropogenic (manmade) global climate change is real, responds in some detail to points made by those who deny anthropogenic climate change or even climate change in general, and iterates specific negative consequences of global climate change, said Dr. Marc Pugliese, associate professor of religion and theology for Saint Leo University.
He said Laudate Deum goes more in depth and uses specific data to make its points as compared to 2015’s encyclical.
“This reminds me a lot of when you are a parent and you have to tell your kids something a second time,” said Dr. Stephen Okey, associate professor of religion and theology, noting that Pope Francis first told the world about the need to address climate change and protecting the environment in Laudato sí.
“I think this text is much more pointed and urgent,” Okey said.
“There’s a lot of very specific critiques of the lack of climate action in the eight years since Laudato sí.
“We’ve been having smoke coming here [from Canadian wildfires],” Okey continued. “In Florida, we already face the challenge of climate change with the increasing frequency of hurricanes. Add in the smoke from wildfires, and it’s clearly something we face here. What Pope Francis is looking at is that we’ve been talking about this for years, but we haven’t been doing much about it. A recurring theme for Francis is that the correct response to climate change is not just a technology or procedure, it’s a genuine change of heart and mind.”
In the new document, the pope laid out the common critiques of environmental concerns as well as the counterarguments.
Pope Francis Discusses Climate Science
“No one can ignore the fact that in recent years we have witnessed extreme weather phenomena, frequent periods of unusual heat, drought, and other cries of protest on the part of the Earth that are only a few palpable expressions of a silent disease that affects everyone,” the pontiff wrote. “Admittedly, not every concrete catastrophe ought to be attributed to global climate change. Nonetheless, it is verifiable that specific climate changes provoked by humanity are notably heightening the probability of extreme phenomena that are increasingly frequent and intense. For this reason, we know that every time the global temperature increases by 0.5° C, the intensity and frequency of great rains and floods increase in some areas and severe droughts in others, extreme heat waves in some places and heavy snowfall in others. If up to now we could have heat waves several times a year, what will happen if the global temperature increases by 1.5° C, which we are approaching?”
Both Laudate Deum and Laudato sí embrace the idea of climate science, Okey said. But “this one is much more specific and aggressive on laying out and specifying the scientific claims.”
Pope Francis continued to apply his criticisms of the “technocratic paradigm” that separates humanity from nature, objectifies and exploits nature, and sees answers to human problems as lying in technological and economic solutions, Pugliese said. “The origins of Pope Francis’ ideas about the ‘technocratic paradigm’ are rooted at least in part in the work of the Catholic philosopher Romano Guardini, whom he studied in graduate school and who he quotes directly multiple times in Laudato sí. For instance: ‘The technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere given, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere space into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference.’”
Reminder to Faithful to Protect the Earth
While Catholic Social Teaching focuses on principles and how those principles guide policy, it does not set policy. “Catholic Social Teaching can’t say what the tax brackets should be, but it can say they should be set up to look after the poor first,” Okey said. “Catholic Social Teaching provides guidelines for how we should use our knowledge of economics, political science, and climate science to make the world a better, more just place.”
To that end, Pope Francis called out people of faith in this document, Laudate Deum. “I cannot fail in this regard to remind the Catholic faithful of the motivations born of their faith,” he wrote. “I encourage my brothers and sisters of other religions to do the same, since we know that authentic faith not only gives strength to the human heart, but also transforms life, transfigures our goals, and sheds light on our relationship to others and with creation as a whole.”
While the pontiff commended individual efforts to protect the environment, he called for more: “I ask everyone to accompany this pilgrimage of reconciliation with the world that is our home and to help make it more beautiful, because that commitment has to do with our personal dignity and highest values. At the same time, I cannot deny that it is necessary to be honest and recognize that the most effective solutions will not come from individual efforts alone, but above all from major political decisions on the national and international level.”
This new text “reminds me a bit more of the shorter encyclicals that popes have sent during wartime,” Okey noted. “The reason I say this is it’s very attuned to specific contemporary events. He talks about the next climate meeting [Conference of the Parties – COP28, to be held November 30-December 12, 2023], the current status of temperature increase internationally, and mentions specifically the effect of the Ukraine and Russia war. It is a much more a timely intervention than a long-arcing statement of principle.”
One of the criticisms of Laudato sí was that in Catholic Social Teaching, the Church says that it does not have particular competency in specific domains of human knowledge like science and economics, and that Pope Francis overstepped this, Pugliese said. “Laudate Deum goes into even more detail with specifics of scientific data. Laudato sí was met with an overall positive assessment by the scientific community, and we will have to wait for the scientific community's assessments of Laudate Deum in these regards.”
Will Reactions Differ Along Party, Religious Lines?
Reactions to Laudate Deum will largely correspond to individuals’ and groups’ political stances, more generally, Pugliese said. “For instance, the pope also criticizes ‘meritocracy’ as mistaken due to factors like privilege, power, and advantage, instead advocating for ‘equality of opportunity,’ a sentiment that progressives will praise,” said Pugliese, the associate dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Allied Services. “The pope references divergent views with the Catholic Church, speaking of these positions as ‘dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions.’ The pope has been criticized lately for certain negative comments he has made about conservatives within the Church and this may add to such criticisms.”
In anticipation of the release of Laudate Deum, the Pew Research Center published a story relating and commenting on the findings of a 2022 Pew Research Center Survey which found that Catholic Church in the United States is divided on the importance of climate change along demographics of political party, race and ethnicity, and age. American Catholics who are Democrats, do not self-identify as “non-Hispanic white,” and who are 49 years older or younger are more concerned about climate change than those who are Republican, self-identify as non-Hispanic white, and are 50 years old or older. The Pew survey showed the overall percentage of Catholics in the United States who say they view climate change as a serious or very serious problem is the same as the percentage of Americans as a whole who say they view climate change as a serious or very serious problem (57%).
In a Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey in February 2022, when asked whose responsibility it is to protect the Earth, nearly two-thirds, 64.9% of those polled nationally, indicated they think protecting the environment is a responsibility of people of religious faith. In a Saint Leo poll of Florida residents, 69.4% said it’s a task for people of faith.
Of the 64.9 percent nationally saying protection of the environment is the responsibility of people of religious faith, 67.3 percent of Catholics agreed while 69.5 percent of other Christian religions, 64.4 percent of other religions, and 55.6 percent of those who do not belong to an organized religion agreed.
Pope Francis chose the feast of St. Francis, patron saint of ecology and animals, as the release date for his latest letter on the environment. “. . .Responsibility for God’s Earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world,” he wrote.