Pope Francis has set out to transform the issue of climate change into a moral imperative, not just for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, but for everyone. He is unambiguous about the role of human activity in producing the greenhouse gasses that are the decisive contributor to global warming and the connection between these climactic changes and global justice challenges facing humanity and the planetary environment.
To deal with these challenges, the Pope calls for changes in energy policy, in modes of production and consumption, in human lifestyles, and in the established structures of power. In so doing he has simultaneously taken on three groups: the uncritical defenders of global capitalism, the climate change deniers, and those within the global Christian community who overlap with the first two groups.
Whether the religious orientation of staunchly Catholic American Republicans or staunchly Catholic Canadian Conservatives will compel them to rethink their traditional hostile approach to the issue of climate change remains to be seen. Will the days ahead reveal that ideology trumps faith when push comes to shove?
Already, we have Catholic candidates for the Republican presidential nomination like Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush suggesting that the Pope should mind his own business, and leave science to the scientists and economics to the economists. Religion should just be about making better people, or saving souls for the hereafter. Or so the argument goes when your church leader outs your position on an issue like climate change as profoundly questionable if not profoundly sinful.
Those who have spent decades lamenting the separation of religion and public life, and made a political career out of integrating it when it suits them, are now to be found advocating their own formula for keeping religious teachings out of the public discourse.
Who will be the first Canadian Catholic on the political right -after years of implying, falsely, that Catholic teaching is only hard on communism and not capitalism- to suggest that the Pope is treading where neither angels nor Popes should dare to tread? Look for the argument that a good man has been innocently misled by all those scientists and UN types with a political agenda; this from the same folks who would not find Papal comments out of place if the comments supported their political agenda, which seems to be that all criticism of our carbon intense way of life must be dismissed as either suspect or misinformed.
In fact, Pope Francis is simply further developing arguments that were to be found most recently in the teachings of Pope Benedict about the nature of the current global economy and its regrettable autonomy and imperviousness to moral reflection or instruction. In his time, even Pope Benedict was suspected by some in his own community of going too far, almost as if the Development and Peace wing of the Catholic church managed to sneak paragraphs into his teachings that surely could not be papal in origin.
Whether activist,environmentalist or not, those who recognize the critical importance of climate justice and action for the possibility of a sustainable future must also hope that the encyclical will be an occasion for reflection and self-examination within the still large element of the conservative Christian evangelical community that has also aligned itself with those who see climate change issues as a cover for socialists and others who do not appreciate God’s preference for free markets .
Pope Francis is operating out of a deeper and more biblical tradition that sees a preference for the poor as paramount. His teaching on climate change is rooted in this tradition, and offered in a way that poses important questions for everyone. This includes many who might otherwise agree with him, but who may find, for example, his critique of cap and trade solutions problematic. In any event, it is the indifference of the powerful that is his main target, along with the minds and hearts of all of us who, especially if we live in democracies, have the freedom to seek out the political leadership that Pope Francis correctly points out is absolutely critical.
Will Pope Francis be able to change the climate on climate change? Only time will tell, but it is sure nice to have him on the side of those voices calling for a meaningful transformation of the established way of thinking about this critical issue.
Bill Blaikie is a United Church Minister. He is currently an adjunct professor at the United Centre for Theological Studies at the University of Winnipeg and is a Broadbent Fellow. He was a Member of Parliament from 1979 to 2008, and an MLA and Minister of Conservation in Manitoba from 2009 to 2011.