The Environmental Pope

Pope Francis at the White House by Julian Ortiz- Flikr

Pope Francis at the White House. Photo by Julian Ortiz | Flickr Creative Commons

Yesterday morning, Pope Francis addressed a Joint Session of Congress, and talked, among other things, about climate change. He didn’t use the term climate change, but the audience knew what he was referring to.

We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps, and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.

The image of the Pope in his white vestments standing in the belly of the American political beast, speaking in a humble and quiet voice where the usual rhetoric is far from either, was in its way jarring.

And the topic was surprising, too. Usually we think of environment as a scientific issue, or perhaps an economic or a political issue. But the pope framed the environment as fundamentally a moral matter.

He was right to do so. Climate change is, of course, a matter for science, economics, and politics. But if are to meet its challenges, it must be a moral issue too.

To meet the challenge of climate change will require collective action on a global scale. Large-scale collective action is always hard, since our self- interest makes it both logical and tempting for each of us to free ride on the efforts of others. Moreover, because the big effects will be felt by future generations well into the future (mostly by people living in poorer regions of the world), those of us who live today in the wealthy West have little to gain by acting. This is, indeed, a “super wicked problem.”

To solve it will require two things, both immensely difficult. First, we need the imagination to see what is happening as an impending tragedy for humanity that can only be averted if we act now. And, second, we need to act not because it is in our self-interest to do so, but because it is our moral duty.

That is what the pope is seeking to do. In his recent encyclical on the environment he begins with a reference to Saint Francis, from whom he took his name.

Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Here Pope Francis, like his namesake, is placing treatment of the environment in a tragic cosmological narrative, in which humans are causing harm to, abusing, and plundering their sister/mother (and daughter of God).

Francis goes on to quote Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.”

In doing so, Francis connects the cosmological narrative with our personal story. To degrade the earth is to sin against God. To protect it is to act in accordance with God’s will. Now history and autobiography are aligned, and the choice to degrade or to protect becomes a fundamental expression of one’s morals, values, and identity.

In speaking to the assembled members of Congress yesterday, the Pope made the appeal personal, seeking to link the personal narratives of the legislators with the larger American story.

Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics…. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.

Faith and religion are often pooh-poohed by those who study collective action, or viewed negatively, but this pope is a refreshing reminder that religion can also be a great force for good in the world.