Question: I know you’re heading on vacation but what do you think about the pope making a pronouncement on climate change?
Frank answers: Since we’ll be spending time hiking in natural areas and visiting one of our most popular national parks, it is perhaps a good spiritual discipline for me to reflect on our commission from the Creator to be “stewards of creation.”
The pope’s encyclical was just officially released today (June 18, 2015). At nearly 200 pages of tight argumentation it requires—and should receive—careful study. The news media, of course, will fasten onto the politically most controversial sections. We already know from leaked earlier drafts that Francis says global warming is “mostly” due to human activity and the burning of fossil fuels and that he calls for a radical change in behavior to save the planet for future generations. But papal encyclicals (letters intended for circulation) are the highest levels of Catholic teaching authority short of an ecumenical council and they require theological, not just political, analysis. More than my quick survey of the document! But from that quick read it is evident that the pope is grounding his teaching on the environmental crisis in Scripture and church tradition.
The title and opening words of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudati Si (“Praise be you”) evoke his namesake’s “Song of the Creatures.” In this song St. Francis praises God whose glory is reflected in “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” “Brother Fire” and “Sister Water,” and “our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”
The canticle is incomplete, though, without St. Francis’ praise of human beings “who give pardon,” bear infirmity and live in peace. St. Francis not only lived in harmony with creation but served the poor. And that is the reason this pope, who considers himself a friend of the poor, has gotten into the climate change debate, because he asserts that changes in our earthly environment are having an adverse effect especially on the poor.
Scene from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Francis of Assisi removed the clothes that he received from his wealthy merchant father in front of Bishop Guido, his father, and the citizens of Assisi and thereafter wore a simple peasant’s robe to identify with the poor. A credo of the Franciscan order was nudus nudum Christum sequi (“follow naked the naked Christ”). It was a radical call to cast aside worldly wealth and belongings and acknowledge the fragile, fallen nature of all men and women.
Let there be no doubt that Pope Francis brings his concern for the poor into the equation of ecological justice. The “tragic effects of environmental degradation” impact the world’s poorest communities the most. As the pope writes, “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystem services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.”
Smog from forest and peat fires in Indonesia (Sumatra) also affects Singapore and Malaysia.
Fishing in Acapulco, Mexico. Toxic materials in the oceans has an adverse affect on the fishing industry.
It is this “intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected” that sets up the pope’s wider discussion of how to address the problems facing people and our “care for our common home” (the encyclical’s subtitle).
The pope’s encyclical will reach a worldwide readership ahead of a United Nations Conference on the environment. It is an issue on which Christians can take the lead. There is a remarkable consensus among Christian bodies, especially mainline Protestant and Orthodox Churches. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, known as “the green patriarch,” called people’s attention to this global environmental and social situation ahead of the patriarch of Rome. Now the official teacher of the Catholic Church has added his teaching authority to these other voices. The sizable bodies of the world’s Evangelicals and Pentecostals have yet to address environmental concerns, but may yet do so. (They lack the denominational structures of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant church bodies to make pronouncements.)
There’s no doubt that climate change is, in part, the result of poor human stewardship of the creation. Therefore humans can also do something about it. Certainly we need to recognize that the earth has been constantly changing. Warming spells and ice ages have come and gone. Those of us who live near the Great Lakes, like I do, receive daily the benefits of those melting glaciers from the last ice age in the form of the world’s largest source of fresh water. And we have to be vigilant about what gets dumped into the Great Lakes since we drink that water! But sometimes when one is flying into Chicago near sundown you can see the automobile-and factory-produced smog in the atmosphere. Climate change has been vigorously debated in the U.S. Common sense says climate change is not an either/or proposition. The earth has always been subject to cycles of cooling and heating. The surface floats on a hot molten inner core. We can’t do anything about erupting volcanoes that bring this inner core to the surface and moving tectonic plates that cause earth quakes, but we can do something about greenhouse gases that we emit into the atmosphere. The warming atmosphere is contributing to the increasing violence of storms that cause flooding, as in the photo of Bangladesh above.
The pope is issuing a prophetic word, calling all people to wake up to what we have done to the Earth and to avoid indifference and apathy. “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers,” he declares, “can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.”
He affirms all the good that science and technology has contributed to the betterment of the human race, especially in the eradication of disease. At the same time, science and technology have contributed to the ecological crisis in which we find ourselves today. Before the scientific revolution in the 17th century and the marriage of science and technology, human beings were not capable of inflicting massive destruction on the natural world. Now we are.
Technological advancements have in fact created the environmental risks now experienced by everyone but from which only the affluent can be protected: pollution, disease, social inequality, and even war. And as far as the encyclical is concerned, without a moral drive, humanity’s vision of a bright future will remain elusive. We must depend on science and technology to help us deal with this crisis. We need our scientists to be studying weather patterns, the effects of greenhouse gases, and whatever connections there may be between them. We would like them to do this research without political considerations and also to remember that science is never “settled” once and for all time. Our planetary environment is so ecologically connected that you can’t deal with one problem without considering the potential for creating other problems.
We may think that because we’re created in the image of God we’re godlike. But desiring that status led to the fall of humankind. Even though the divine intention was that human beings should represent the Creator to the rest of creation, we are still creatures. The command to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28) is not a license to spoil the place. We are to tend the garden of the Lord. That’s stewardship.
Unfortunately, we did fall into sin. We succumbed to temptation. We have pursued our own interest in everything. So the whole creation suffers. St. Paul wrote that it was “subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). In other words, when human beings are finally restored to their true destiny, nature will also share in this release from “bondage to decay.” We are promised a new earth as well as a new heaven in the reign of Christ.
Living in the hope of the new creation we do what we can to renew it now. Individuals doing what they can to clean up or preserve the environment are an inspiration to other individuals. So an environmental movement spreads around the earth and pressures government and private industry to take steps to reverse the effects of the degradation of the planet. We may even take steps to reverse environmental degradation where we had little or nothing to do with it. That’s our job as stewards of creation. That’s why we don’t need to discount the earth’s own natural climate changes in order to recognize humanly-produced climate changes.
Red Cross sponsored cleanup in Sri Lanka
Our commission to have dominion over the earth gives us the responsibility to deal with whatever adversely affects God’s creation, including the other creatures of the earth as well as our human brothers and sisters. And that will undoubtedly require a lot of changed minds and hearts. This evangelical call for conversion may be the main spiritual benefit of Pope Francis’ encyclical. That global conversion is needed now. At the current rate of global warming the destiny of life on Earth depends on it.
Pastor Frank Senn