The Pope Sounds Off on Climate Change

  • Pope Francis at the Vatican, Friday, October 11, 2013. Photo: European Union 2013, European Parliament via Flickr

June 19, 2015

This week, a highly anticipated environmental writing by Pope Francis—a set of teachings known as an encyclical—was leaked by an Italian magazine, and many are calling its contents nothing short of revolutionary. It accepts that climate change is a man-made threat to human life and warns that there will be “grave consequences” if people don’t make changes in lifestyle and consumption. To explore the implications of the encyclical, the Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Daniel Scheid, an assistant professor of theology at Duquesne University, a Catholic University in Pittsburgh.

Allegheny Front: In the past, other popes have spoken out about environmental issues. Pope Benedict was even known as the “Green Pope.” What’s different about this encyclical on the environment?

Daniel Scheid: What’s exciting about this is that this is the most authoritative document that a pope can write and issue. The things that he discusses in this encyclical are, in some ways, not new at all. But it elevates many of the teachings that John Paul and Benedict gave in their letters, in their statements on World Peace Day and in homilies and so forth. This crystallizes it and makes it officially part of the social teaching of the church.

AF: This pope has been a special advocate for the poor. He himself has chosen a simpler vehicle and place to live than other past pontiffs, for example. How does his focus on climate change and the environment fit with Pope Francis’ other teachings and priorities?

DS: This is no surprise that for a pope from the Global South, where poverty is rampant and real and where the effects of climate change are going to be felt more harshly and more immediately than in the developed north, that this issue would be intimate to him. The poor are already struggling with environmental problems. And in some ways, I think the way in which the world overlooks or pretends that poverty doesn’t exist is similar to the way in which the world continues with business as usual without paying attention to environmental concerns like climate change.

AF: How has the Catholic Church traditionally addressed environmental issues, and is there a shift happening now?

DS: Well, in 1990, John Paul II released probably the first major papal statement devoted to ecology. And there, he talks about the need for an “ecological conversion”—that care for creation, care for the earth is not just peripheral to the Christian vocation but is absolutely central to what it means to be Christian. So the Catholic Church, in the past, has spoken about environmental issues as moral responsibilities, as a way of honoring God the creator and as a way of reflecting on concern for the poor and for future generations.

It also coincides with the church’s critique of different forms of economic systems that don’t put human flourishing and human well-being at the center. So the church historically was critical of the communist as well as capitalist economic systems, because both of them didn’t necessarily put the full human person at the center. And I think this teaching is similar—that unfettered market capitalism is not serving the needs of the whole human community and not serving the needs of future generations. And it’s not treating with the proper respect the laws and grammar of nature that God has instilled into creation.

AF: About a quarter of Pennsylvanians are Catholic. Do you think this focus on climate change will change some minds among Catholics or people of faith who aren’t sure if they trust scientists or politicians who have been warning them about climate change?

DS: The Catholic Church has a long history of respect for science, even though some of our events in the past with Galileo might suggest otherwise. The Catholic Church has long wanted to see the world with the eyes of reason, and that includes listening to science. I hope that Pope Francis’ appeal to care for the earth as a form of love has a different resonance to it than perhaps what people have heard in the past. If they hear climate change in terms of blame or in terms of economic burden, then people are going to resist that message. But if they hear it in terms of the beauty and wonder of the earth, and in terms of our moral responsibility to love one another and to care for the poor and for future generations, I hope that puts the climate change issue in a new light.

AF: In Pennsylvania, we also have this tradition of mining and drilling for fossil fuels. Do you think that will have any bearing on how the Pope’s message is received by Catholics in this region?

DS: The Pope isn’t opposed to using fuels. He is saying the current science suggests we need to move to a new form of energy, and that the people who rely on those fossil fuels need to be helped to move to the kind of society and world that we need to live in. I think, for him, it’s really looking at the cold hard facts. What we have right now is not sustainable. And so we, as one human family, need to help each other to ensure that everyone can move into a different kind of energy system.

AF: Some American politicians, including Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, have criticized the Pope for speaking on environmental issues—and especially on climate change—saying he should leave that to scientists. Why is climate change a religious issue?

DS: The church responds to the real world. The church responds to what they call the "signs of the times"—what is happening in our world today. And the vast majority of scientists affirm that climate change is real, it is happening. The effects are already occurring and they will be worse. Since climate change affects real human lives now and in the future, it is obviously a moral statement. So, in some ways, he is sticking to what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s sticking to moral teaching, and responding to climate change is a moral imperative. I would even say there is a theological reason to respond to this for the good of all creation, but especially for human beings.