By Clint J. Springer, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology, Saint Joseph’s University
On June 18, 2015, with the official release of his papacy’s first encyclical, Laudato Si', His Holiness Pope Francis solidified the Catholic Church’s social teaching on the environment and clarified the way that humans should interact with the Earth, their only home.
Human-induced climate change is one of the most pressing challenges that society has ever faced. As early as 30 years from now, rising carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption could reach levels that will significantly alter climate conditions and impact crop production in the United States and across the world. Scientific evidence strongly suggests that the effects of climate change will impair the ability of natural and agricultural ecosystems to provide the services that are necessary to sustain healthy lives for the global community. As a professor whose scholarly work examines the scientific consequences of global climate change and as a person who wants to see a vibrant future for generations to come on our planet, I believe the papal document has the ability to motivate large swaths of people to act toward solving the problems that stem from climate change and environmental degradation. It is my hope that this encyclical will be a call to action for the world’s more than one billion Catholics and all people of good will to make the changes needed to create an environment that will sustain current and future generations, in both the developing and developed world.
The most important contribution of Laudato Si' is the pope’s framing of the situation — not as a scientific, economic or political debate, but as an issue of social justice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines social justice as “... the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due ...” With this definition in mind, the subject of the encyclical is undoubtedly a major social justice concern.
His Holiness, in his call to action, reflects and affirms scholars of the natural sciences, humanities and business who say that “climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods” (Laudato Si', No. 25). My students and I have found through our research that human-induced climate change can have profound effects on the timing of plant life development and that these changes can alter the function of both natural and agricultural ecosystems over time. Pope Francis goes so far as to state that climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day”* and that its greatest impact will likely be felt by the world’s poor.
The Holy Father elevates “care for creation,” a key theme of Catholic teaching regarding social justice issues, by providing a historical context through the Church’s papal, conciliar and episcopal statements on the environment. As populations grow and resource use increases, we must be especially mindful of the consequences on the environment and its ability to provide clean air, clean water, food and shelter for all of humanity. Never before has environmental degradation threatened our livelihoods and those of future generations as it does today. Therefore, it is extremely timely that Pope Francis now advances these issues to the forefront of the minds of the planet’s more than one billion Catholics.
The encyclical also brings a fresh perspective to Church teaching on the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings, explicitly illustrating that the environment, especially the climate system, is a common good — in fact, “the commons,” where the life of every member of the global community takes place.
Interestingly, the encyclical does not change Church teachings but hones them into a modern-day action plan to better manage the Earth’s resources, while considering the most vulnerable among us, the poor. This sentiment echoes that decreed by the 35th Congregation of the Society of Jesus, whereby the Jesuits declared that all members and partners engaged in the same mission, particularly Jesuit colleges and universities, should promote studies and practices that focus on the causes of poverty and the question of the environment’s improvement.
In the end, His Holiness exhorts the wealthy of the world to do more to ensure environmental sustainability for both themselves and the poor. Pope Francis masterfully accomplishes this by using the example of St. Francis of Assisi, the inspiration for his papal name and the encyclical title. St. Francis was a conscientious consumer of the Earth’s resources and saw the splendor of creation in each of its beings. By weaving a Franciscan view of the natural world throughout the document, the Holy Father provides another example of his goal to return the Church to its mission of ministering to the poor and marginalized and, in this instance, advancing the cause of the environment for those who most depend on it.
That’s a goal worthy of the papacy and all of us.
*Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic: November 26, 2015 (http://bit.ly/1T4qDjZ).