Jay Parini: Pope's encyclical thrusts church to forefront of movement to end global warming
Parini says he hopes Christians cheer Pope Francis' clarity and conviction
The concept of “turning the other cheek” may sound meek and mild, almost a copout. But it’s a powerful teaching that could lead to genuine, even radical, transformation. It invites us to struggle to find a way out of this cycle of victim and perpetrator.
As expected, this 180-page document is more than simply a commentary on the climate – it’s a fiery indictment of the developed world and its rampant greediness, which has thrust incalculable suffering on the poor of the world. Wealthy countries must now begin to pay their “grave social debt,” as Francis calls it, to those whose resources have been systematically plundered, and who bear the brunt of global climate change.
This wide-ranging treatise thrusts the church to the forefront of the movement to end global warming and mindless consumption, framing the issues at hand in terms of social justice and the obligation of Christians to behave in ways that demonstrate a faithful stewardship of God’s creation. “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” Francis said, suggesting that he believes economic justice should go hand in hand with environmental action. Indeed, he seizes on the issue of exploitation in a radical fashion: “In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”
The theology of climate change has never been so explicitly stated. As Francis suggests repeatedly in this document, if human beings behave in ways that exacerbate global warming, which in turn generates massive resource problems, then it’s the “moral duty” of us to change our behavior.
Contrary to what one often hears, most Christians in the United States (even evangelicals) largely agree with this assessment, as a recent survey has found. So the Pope is not stepping out onto a major limb by himself. Instead, he is simply using the bully pulpit of the papacy to make a point of vital interest to everyone.
In taking this stance, Francis forces us back to the Gospels, where we see Jesus repeatedly associating with those on the margins, urging compassion for the hungry and sick, for strangers and prisoners. Jesus said that God would judge his people on how they behaved toward those most in need: ‘“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) This is Christianity 101, and the Bible teems with passages that declare versions of what we read in the 24th Psalm: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” Christians believe that God made this world, and that he expects us to cherish it, leaving a planet to our grandchildren that is, if anything, even better cared for than the one we inherited from our grandparents.
As the Pope suggests without equivocation, we have been inadequate stewards of the planet. An economic system that exploits the poor for the benefit of a wealthy few is hardly consistent with Christian values. Our greed (Francis uses the world “sin” in this context) has degraded what we have been given, and only avarice or ignorance allow us to destroy rain forests, for example, which naturally absorb greenhouse gases.
Francis dwells on the science of climate change here, noting that the rise of greenhouse gases coincides with the Industrial Revolution – it’s a fairly exact correlation, if not a direct cause. Greenhouses gases – and we’re talking mainly about carbon dioxide here – come from various sources, but the chief source is human activity, especially those connected to the exploitation of fossil fuels, as the Francis points out.
The Pope has been loudly criticized for “politicizing” an issue that, in the view of some, belongs to scientists alone. Rick Santorum, a candidate for president, argued recently that “the church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” And Jeb Bush, in New Hampshire this week, said: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishop or my cardinal or my pope.”
Santorum and Bush are Catholics on slippery ground. As head of the church, Pope Francis speaks for all members of his flock, and he has spoken unequivocally here, noting that the scientists widely agree on this matter. Sustainable behavior is, in fact, moral behavior, the Pope tells us. As such, it’s perhaps the key theological issue of our time.
Francis will be called an “anti-capitalist” by many, and climate change denial will ramp up to unprecedented levels in the weeks ahead. In anticipation of this encyclical, terrified writers in various American business publications from The Wall Street Journal to Forbes have tried to debunk the idea that there is broad agreement among climate scientists. But in fact that agreement is overwhelming. The most comprehensive survey of peer-reviewed scientific papers – nearly 12,000 papers were reviewed by nine leading scientists – shows that 97% of scientists actually do agree that “humans are causing global warming.” Only .03% disagreed with this assessment.
It’s interesting to recall that, in 1632, Galileo and the church disagreed about whether or not the Earth stood at the center of the solar system. It took 200 years for the College of Cardinals to agree that, alas, the Earth moved around the sun. It took more years for some of the strictest Protestant sects to assent to this demotion for earthbound folks, who liked their place at the center of things.
Now Pope Francis, in a bold move, has forced the issue of climate change to the front burner of world attention, and not a minute too early. He understands that something must be done immediately to preserve God’s creation, to conserve a world for future generations that will be worth inhabiting. Scientists are as unanimous as scientists can ever be on any issue. The evidence of extreme human suffering (including the beginning of mass population shifts and the scarcity of drinking water) resulting from climate change lies everywhere around us.
Francis calls for immediate action, and I hope that Christians cheer his clarity and conviction. This is a theological matter, yes. But it’s something that should concern every human being on the planet.