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Can Pope Francis make ecology critical to the identity of the faithful?


This year Pope Francis is expected to deliver an encyclical on ecology, one concerning the environment broadly and perhaps climate change more particularly.

Believers and non-believers alike, united by a common concern for the future of the planet, have high hopes that someone who chose to name himself after that great lover of creation, Francis of Assisi, will say something truly transformational, for as a Canadian Council of Churches document lamentably observes, transformative change has not “found traction within political processes.”  

Whatever Pope Francis says, it will be important to keep in mind that he will only be deepening an element of Papal teaching that has roots in Pope John Paul II’s call in 1990 for a new solidarity to protect the integrity of creation from atomistic and reductionist attitudes toward the environment that lead to the plundering of the earth’s resources, and in Pope Benedict’s call in 2010 for a cultural renewal to counter the “myopic economic interests” that are preventing responsible stewardship of the earth. 

Unfortunately, such past papal observations were routinely ignored by the media, who found more journalistic joy in the culture wars over abortion and sexual orientation than planetary survival. The coverage of Pope Francis seems to be different, perhaps in part because he himself has counseled against focusing exclusively on such issues. Now what Pope Francis needs to do, what we all need him to do, is to move ecological insights and imperatives from the margins of his church’s teachings to the centre of Catholic moral teaching, to make them critical to the identity of the faithful in the world. 

The anticipation of the encyclical is a context in which to reflect on the increasing salience of these issues in the life of the whole church community, and on the potential contribution that churches can make in shaping public opinion to accept and support policies that will make a difference.  

The good news from the evangelical Christian community for a while was symbolized by The Evangelical Climate Initiative, a call for action signed initially by dozens and then a couple of hundred American evangelical pastors and professors. It proclaimed that ,“The basic task for all of the world’s inhabitants is to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the cause of human-induced climate change.” This was part of a larger evangelical environmental consciousness-raising that was often referred to as the “creation care” movement.

The bad news is that these hopeful developments produced push back, and counter declarations from groups such as the Cornwall Alliance whose mysterious blend of climate change denial and capitalism portrays environmentalists as closet socialists who sadly do not see that the importance of divinely sanctioned free markets trumps all other concerns. The tactical tendency in this camp of late has been to plead that it is the poor who will suffer most from any policies like carbon pricing. This claim ignores the well established fact that climate change itself harms the poor and powerless, which is why climate change activism sometime ago morphed into a climate justice activism that recognizes the challenge of dealing with the issue in a way that addresses the needs of vulnerable humanity as well as a vulnerable planet.

The battle for the hearts and minds of evangelical Christians over climate change is ongoing. Keeping in mind that in recent years evangelicals shed their historically negative attitude towards Catholicism, as they fought alongside it in the culture wars, a strong statement from Pope Francis might be persuasive with many evangelicals.

The good news is to be found in documents like the one prepared for the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), in framing principles for witness and action on climate justice, energy, and the economy, “Working for justice now means working to prevent further climate disruption; it means working for environmental stabilization that will enable all people to achieve the security and dignity of a good life; it means working with a clear commitment to intergenerational equity. Climate justice for the most vulnerable peoples of the earth – people who have contributed the least to climate change, but who are now affected the most – requires a new global approach to energy use and economic development- a new ethic of energy use.” 

The document looks to a transformation in which climate change mitigation and the reversal of environmental degradation is achieved by requiring a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels, a rapid increase in the use of renewable energy, and “the maturing of consumer societies into conserver societies.”

None of this is necessarily all that new. The so-called mainstream churches have been saying the right thing on climate change for years, but there is an urgency to the language that is new. This urgency needs to find its way to the pulpits of these churches on a more regular basis. Indeed, it is the urgency of the situation, both morally and environmentally, that one hopes will ring loudly around the world when Pope Francis speaks later this year. 

If all the churches could move climate justice to the centre of their preaching and moral teaching, it just might help make the difference in creating a constituency that would give backbone to the politically fearful, and open up  space  for the politically cautious, to seek the kind of mandates, the kind of political traction, that will lead to a future other than the ecological, economic, and societal collapse that is being planned by those who cannot or will not imagine an alternative to fossil fuels and the kind of economic growth that has brought us to the very dangerous situation we are now in.   

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.

Photo: Catholic Church (England, Wales). Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.