Our Influence is Uncertain
Climate Change is a Fact
“In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way…In this regard, humanity today must be conscious of its duties and obligations towards future generations.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 37)
The earth is a precious gift of the Creator, who has designed its intrinsic order, thus giving us guidelines to which we must hold ourselves as stewards of his creation…In my recent Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, I referred more than once to such questions.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
“It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter (Laudato Si’), which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.” (Pope Francis, 15)
Climate Change is one topic among a myriad of ecological and environmental issues facing us. In Solidarity with our fellow man, the Church insists we have a responsibility to evaluate and prioritize environmental issues and, using our prudential judgment, address as many of those so prioritized as we can.
It is complicated: To be sure, change in climate is a fact of science. The extent to which human activity influences it is not settled science. As well, whether some measures proposed to reduce emissions will do more harm than good is also not a settled matter. Pressing ahead as though these things are settled matters may make the Church look less like responsible stewards of God’s creation and more like political agents.
Addressing Climate Change
Who is Responsible?
It is up to the lay faithful to implement Catholic social teaching in the world: Gaudium et Spes (the Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World) establishes this responsibility.
“Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.” (Pope Francis, 3.1)
Is it a Political Issue?
One political party committed the country to a significant international accord on the topic (The Paris Agreement) and has proposed a “Green New Deal” which would allocate tremendous resources to it; the other party has withdrawn the US from the international accord and opposes the other party’s current proposals.
Fulfilling My Obligation
“Politics is an essential means of building human community and institutions”. (Pope Francis)
“We, Christians, cannot ‘play Pilate’ and wash our hands…We must participate in politics because politics is one of the highest forms of charity because it seeks the common good. And Christian lay people must work in politics.” (Pope Francis)
Pope Francis recognizes that this “is not easy; politics has become too tainted. But I ask myself: Why has it become tainted? Because Christians have not participated in politics with an evangelical spirit? …To work for the common good is a Christian duty, and many times the way in which to work towards it is through politics.” (Address to the Students of the Jesuit Schools of Italy and Albania, June 7, 2013)
How Best to Address Politically
“[W]hat does it mean, in practical terms, to promote moral truth in the world of politics…?
- It means acting in a responsible way on the basis of an objective and integral
knowledge of the facts;
- deconstructing political ideologies which end up supplanting truth and
human dignity in order to promote pseudo-values under the pretext of peace,
development and human rights;
- fostering an unswerving commitment to base positive law on the principles of the natural law.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 12)
‘People of goodwill’ should dialogue – and they can disagree on “positions” – as long as their prudential judgement is well formed (ala Pope Benedict XVI’s ‘matrix’ above and a deep internalization of Catholic social teaching principles.)
What is the Current State of Affairs?
“On almost every environment and climate change and global warming issue we have tested, there are major partisan gaps.” (Gallup – Frank Newport)
Indeed, one of the starkest displays of political polarization in the U.S. is on the subject of climate change with Americans who worry “a great deal” about climate change being: Democrat = 66%; Republican = 18%. (Gallup – Frank Newport)
The Yale Program on Climate Change Communications bears this out by illustrating “national public opinion over time…show the diversity of Americans’ views on climate change…as caused by human activity:”
In 2017, climate change was viewed as caused by human activity by: (Explore Climate Change in the American Mind)
- 27% of conservative Republicans
- 48% of liberal/moderate Republicans
- 49% of the Independents;
- 64% of moderate/conservative Democrats
- 83% of liberal Democrats
Similar percentages reported there being a “scientific consensus” on the issue. (Explore Climate Change in the American Mind)
“Perhaps more troubling was that over the 10 year period 2008-2017 Independents agreeing climate change was human caused had dropped from 65% to 49%. (Explore Climate Change in the American Mind)
The Need for Discussion
“An integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics.” (Pope Francis, 156)
With such a significant number of Americans not viewing human caused climate change as a “long held truth”, their perception must be addressed in order to form the political consensus required for any immediate and extensive solutions.
For this to occur (as for all critical social issues) discussion is needed! Indeed, discussing climate change is required to adequately form consciences (with the tenets of Catholic social teaching) and find/agree solutions.
“To break through the communications barriers of human nature, partisan identity, and media fragmentation, messages need to be tailored to a specific medium and audience…that trigger a new way of thinking about the personal relevance of climate change.” (Matthew Nisbet)
The Need for Faith & Science
This suggests activities by Catholics should focus on grassroots efforts to educate people and shape individual behaviors, and, perhaps, this is an area where science and faith need each other:
“The faith community really can’t understand this problem without understanding the science … and the scientific community is going to need the faith community to inspire and motivate and provide a different kind of vision for how we live on this planet together…I think until that dialogue really kind of ratchets up, it’s going to be tough for either community to go this alone. In other words, we can’t do this without the science and technology that they are going to bring, and they won’t be able to change minds and hearts without us.” (Dan Misleh, Executive Director of Catholic Climate Covenant)
If the time to address global warming is truly short and human actions can ameliorate it – one can and must make the political case for such action.
And, Americans seem to be open and willing to listen.
As Mr. Newport, of Gallup, noted: “Americans are, in essence, open to argument about the relative benefits of the Paris Agreement. That is, Americans are open to argument about the accord’s positive impact of helping the environment and reducing the upward trend in the earth’s temperature on the one hand, and its cost in terms of slowing job growth and increasing federal expenditures, as well as its fairness to the U.S. on the other.”
What About other Environmental Issues?
“The natural environment is given by God to everyone, and its use entails a personal responsibility towards the whole of humanity”.
In focusing extensively on Climate Change is it worth considering: Are we missing “the forest for the trees”?
Catholic Social Teaching and Other Issues
The belief humanity can be divided into separate and exclusive biological entities with some races innately superior to others. This leads to personal and societal prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different race or ethnicity. What does Catholic social teaching have to say about such an insidious “ism”?
Candidates for President of the United States and many in congress espouse this as an alternative model for our country. What, exactly, is it? What does the Catholic Church have to say about it?
One political party committed the US to the Paris Agreement and proposes a “Green New Deal”. Another party withdrew from the Paris Agreement and inimically opposes the other’s proposal. What does Catholic social teaching have to say?
National Health Care
US health care is, in many ways, the envy of the world. Would a national health care program improve it? See how Catholic social teaching can inform the discussion!
A right? How much? Who? What are immigrants’ duties? This is complicated! Catholic social teaching can help sort through the issues.
“The greatest challenge of our time”! Why? Radical secularism holds that there is no such thing as an objective truth. But, “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true...social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 5) Sound familiar?
Why These Issues Matter
Catholic social teaching informs our consciences and requires action from us, the lay faithful. “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation.
For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.”
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles – Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles: “The State must contribute to the achievement of these goals both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating favorable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest” (Pope St. John Paul II, 15)
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image. This is “the basis not only of the unity of the human family but also of our inviolable human dignity” (Pope Benedict XVI) and it is in this beginning that human rights are grounded.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (Pope St. John Paul II, 38). Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment. “We cannot believe in God the Father without seeing a brother or sister in every person, and we cannot follow Jesus without giving our lives for those for whom he died on the cross.”
Subsidiarity identifies how decisions in society need to be taken at the lowest competent level. “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”.
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