Not one to water down his stance on social injustices, Pope Francis’s exceedingly vocal opinions have been overwhelmingly respected by Catholics and nonbelievers alike. However, when it comes to changing our cultural discussion on something as significant as climate change, too many politicians seem apathetic in comparison to the papal leadership. In his June 2015 encyclical, one of the highest forms of a papal statement, Pope Francis has shown the world how both traditional Catholicism and modern science strongly support our need for radical climate reform. Placing most of the blame on fossil fuels and human activity, Francis has warned that we must recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption in order to combat this warming. But despite the pope’s call to action, meaningful decisions on the parts of our world leaders has yet to materialize, even though the general public seems to overwhelmingly agree that we ought to reduce carbon emissions, protect plants, and clean up our oceans. If our society is to fundamentally change the debate on climate change, Pope Francis’s passionate words will first need to be heard.
Although Pope Francis has publicly defended the environment in previous statements, his 184 page encyclical delivers a more complete case than ever before arguing why all people should be working to save the planet – regardless of their religious or political beliefs. There are several Catholics currently competing to be next year’s Republican presidential nominee, including Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, yet all of them continue to deny humanity’s negative influence on the environment. Pope Francis is likely to, at least in some capacity, be trying to appeal to highly-influential politicians like these, but so far appears to have failed in changing the minds of our climate change-denying leaders. “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” said Jeb Bush, a devout Catholic who once credited his faith for guiding his decision making process on varying policy issues.
However, this is not to say there hasn’t also been an outpouring of support for the pope’s recent statements due in part to his global popularity, but also because of the intriguing coalition he has presented between faith and science. Thousands have marched in Rome to raise awareness of climate change and academics like Charles J. Reid Jr. and Robert P. George, have voiced hopes that the understanding will continue to spread.
While some have criticized Pope Francis for making scientific claims as a religious authority, it would be a misreading of his words to think that the encyclical is meant as an empirical argument. Parallel to environmentalists primary concern of overpopulation, the encyclical cites varying types of scientific evidence to support the human role in climate change. According to some gas companies, over 80% of the total CO2 emissions in 2014 stem from the transportation sector and as World Wildlife points out, up to 58 thousand square miles of forest are lost every year. Underlying these facts, Pope Francis continues to place the main focus on why taking good care of our planet in a God-given responsibility. Unless we can work to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, Pope Francis argues that we will fail God, our society, and the planet itself. “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental,” writes Pope Francis. Choosing not to argue very much about the signs of our rapidly changing world, Francis discusses how protecting the Earth is a moral imperative that applies to our fundamental virtues. By focusing on the values we all share, Catholics and environmental activists can work together to save the world.
There is no issue that aligns the moral authorities of science and religion more so than protecting nature. In an unprecedented move releasing an encyclical fully devoted to the environment, Pope Francis has called for a “new universal solidarity” that will work to preserve life through positive social changes. Although some of the pope’s target audience will undoubtedly continue to challenge his message, the overall support shown by the general public may be an indicator that this is the beginning of a real change. Pope Francis remains hopeful, despite our coming challenges, writing that “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”